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MEDIA; Turning a Mystery Into a Courtroom Drama

There was a moment about a year ago when it appeared this story might finally go away. Authorities in Boulder, Colo., were calling the investigation into who killed JonBenet Ramsey effectively stalled. A 13-month grand jury investigation the previous year had not resulted in an indictment or vindication. No one had heard publicly from the parents, and the major news media that once opened minibureaus in this college town had long ago packed up and moved on.

But a second Ramsey maelstrom is on the horizon. Four and half years after her murder, JonBenet's death has metamorphosed into an all-out rumble of libel, slander and First Amendment civil lawsuits.

No fewer than 10 lawsuits, claiming more than $250 million in damages, have been filed either by or against tabloid and mainstream media, local police, Ramsey neighbors and employees and JonBenet's family.

''I will say that this is the first time I've ever seen this, at this scale,'' said Daniel Petrocelli, who successfully represented the family of Ron Goldman in a $33.5 million wrongful death claim against O. J. Simpson.

In fact, the Ramsey civil cases are part of a national trend. More Americans are turning to civil claims -- some say legal vigilantism -- when criminal charges were not enough or seemingly failed. The National Crime Victim Bar Association in Arlington, Va., says it has tracked since 1991 a 200 percent increase in civil cases originally stemming from crimes that went to trial and whose verdicts were appealed (the association does not track trials that do not lead to appeals).

But the JonBenet libel suits are writing a new chapter to this courtroom drama. The machinery of a civil lawsuit is not only being wielded to redeem reputations, but to identify JonBenet's killer or expose police corruption.

''I'm in a position to prove who murdered JonBenet,'' said Darnay Hoffman, who in 1996 represented Bernard H. Goetz in civil lawsuits by three of the men he shot in a New York subway in 1984. In the last year, Mr. Hoffman filed two $50 million libel lawsuits against John and Patsy Ramsey on behalf of Christian Wolf, a Boulder resident, and Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, the Ramseys' housekeeper. The Ramseys named both as suspects in their 2000 book.

At the heart of Mr. Hoffman's case is the Ramsey ransom note, a rambling three-page demand that police say was written by the killer. Beginning in May, Mr. Hoffman will begin taking depositions from key figures, including JonBenet's parents, in efforts to tie handwriting similarities -- specifically the shape of letters like ''s,'' ''d'' and ''n'' -- to whom he believes is the primary suspect.

''If I show Patsy is the writer, everything she wrote and said is a lie,'' Mr. Hoffman said, ''and we win.'' As was done in the Simpson civil case, he would insist on confiscating the Ramseys' assets.

Mr. Hoffman's adversary, though, is L. Lin Wood, who also represents the libel claims of Richard Jewell, who was falsely accused of planting a bomb at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Mr. Wood is also aiming to tap the workings of the civil courts for his client's own crusade.

''Darnay will be, in a backhanded way, doing us a favor and putting whether Patsy killed JonBenet into play,'' says Mr. Wood, who intends to prove that local authorities had it out for his clients. To press his point, in March the Ramseys filed an $80 million libel and due process claim against Steve Thomas, a lead detective in the Ramsey case who retired and wrote a book calling Mrs. Ramsey the murderer. Adding to this operatic legal drama is Mr. Thomas's choice for defense attorney: Mr. Petrocelli.

Meanwhile, there are other libel filings, the most compelling surrounding JonBenet's brother, Burke, who was 9 at the time of the murder. In May 1999, an article in the tabloid The Star suggested that the boy killed his sister. The story was picked up by The New York Post and by Time magazine's Web site. The problem was Burke was never a suspect in the case, according to statements Boulder authorities have made since the day of the murder.

Though The Star retracted its article, Mr. Wood filed a $25 million suit against the magazine as well as another tabloid, The Globe, for a similar piece. Both were settled for undisclosed amounts.

Mr. Wood also filed $4 million suits against The Post and Time .com, which stood by the articles (though Time.com did remove its article from its Web site). Those cases are in litigation, as is an $11.75 million suit filed against the author and publisher of a Texas book that portrayed Burke as the murderer.

All lawyers involved stamp everyone else's lawsuits ''frivolous'' and ''publicity stunts.'' And all agree that while the 2001 litigation will probably reveal tantalizing clues as to whodunit, it will not solve the crime. As a result, the public can certainly expect more news coverage of the case.