Media Shifts Guilt and Innocence Around the Ramseys

The mainstream media didn’t fail to live up to its reputation yesterday when it reported the release of John Ramsey’s new book, “The Other Side of Suffering: The Father of JonBenet Ramsey Tells the Story of His Journey from Grief to Grace.”

As usual, the media once again misreported crucial information that impacted the perception the public may have about the guilt or innocence of the Ramseys as well as the official position of the Boulder Police Department. The media has almost always reported the story incorrectly, and I should know--I’ve covered the Ramsey case for more than 15 years since I was a cub reporter in Boulder, Colorado.

During that time I tracked down potential suspects and became well acquainted with both the Ramseys and the authorities investigating the case. As a result, I became very familiar with which stories were true and which ones were false.

Yesterday, two reporters at ABC News inaccurately reported:

For years, Boulder police suspected the Ramseys killed their daughter, but in 2008, police cleared the Ramseys of any wrongdoing and issued an apology. JonBenet’s mother Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer on June 24, 2006, without knowing her name had been cleared.

The Boulder Police never cleared the Ramseys or apologized. In fact, the family has repeatedly complained that the Boulder Police Department has kept them under what Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner once called, “the umbrella of suspicion.”

It was former District Attorney Mary Lacy who wrote a letter to the Ramseys in 2008 on her own behalf apologizing to the family because she personally believed they were innocent. Lacy based her decision on the fact that miniscule elements of “touch DNA” commingled in JonBenet’s blood did not match the Ramseys.

The DNA is a fascinating evidentiary breakthrough, which does suggest the possibility that an intruder may have killed JonBenet, but it was in no way conclusive, and the ABC report fails to mention that shortly after Lacy wrote that letter they returned the case to the Boulder Police Department because they did not believe they were capable of solving the case themselves.

The ABC inaccuracy is significant since the police and prosecutors have almost always been at war in this case (The new District Attorney, Stan Garnett, reportedly has a much better relationship with the Boulder Police Department than Lacy did) . The police have always suspected the Ramseys and the prosecutors were equally divided--some believing the Ramseys were guilty and others believing it was an intruder.

The inaccurate assertion reported in the ABC story, which has been echoed many times before by other news outlets creates the false perception that the police admitted they were wrong all along when in fact the police have never changed their course.

On Friday morning I contacted one of the ABC reporters who co-wrote the story and I explained this to her, but she failed to understand the distinction between the two agencies and told me via e-mail that they would not change their story because "the Ramseys, nor anyone else, were ever officially indicted by the Boulder police."

Clarification: police don't file indictments, prosecutors do.

The only time the police ever changed their course in the investigation was very early on when they initially suspected John Ramsey of the murder and then decided it could be Patsy instead. The very first stories following the December 26, 1996 murder falsely reported that semen was found on JonBenet after she was brought upstairs from the basement by her father, John Ramsey.

Those reports created intense speculation that John was a pedophile and a murderer who sexually abused his 6-year old daughter. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It later turned out that the so called semen found JonBenet was actually a skin cleanser that killer used to remove his or her DNA off JonBenet.

JonBenet was in fact sexually assaulted the night of the murder, and a panel of pediatric experts later concluded there may have been ongoing prior sexual abuse, but there was never any evidence who the perpetrator was. The police quickly shifted their focus away from John to Patsy, but it took several months for the media to let go of the rumors that he was the killer.

In many instances during the Ramsey case the mainstream media followed the supermarket tabloids because they sometimes uncovered explosive leads. There were several stories however, in which the tabloids outright lied. In 1998, the tabloids began to suggest the murder was committed by JonBenet's then 9 year-old brother Burke, even though police did not believe he was involved. The tabloids knew the story was false, but they published it anyway because they knew it would sell.

Shortly after the tabloids reported that Burke was a suspect, many mainstream media outlets did the same actually citing the tabloids as their source. Eventually, the family successfully sued the tabloids on behalf of Burke and won confidential settlements.

The continued inaccuracies told by the media in this admittedly complex story is dangerous because it continues to shift public opinion around the potential guilt or innocence of the family.

Misreporting the position of the Boulder Police Department has also had a damaging effect in that it effects their ability to interview witnesses or potential suspects who have preconceived notions about who investigators are targeting. Some intruder suspects have accused the Boulder police of secretly conspiring with the Ramseys to blame an innocent person for the murder, and as a result refused to turn over their DNA or answer questions.

Of course, that allegation is flat out ridiculous, and even the Ramseys would probably agree with that since they know all too well that the police have always kept them under that "umbrella of suspicion."

Eventually, University of Colorado Professor Michael Tracey produced three documentaries that evidenced how the media corrupted the judicial process making it harder for the authorities to find the killer.

The truth about many issues surrounding the case is out there even if, after 15 years we still do not know whom the killer is. Reporting the truth can only help this case finally reach a resolution, and hopefully result in justice for JonBenet, which is long overdue.



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