by Michael Tracey
Several incidents in particular focused my attention not on the murder but on how we seemed to be dealing with it as a culture. In March 1997 the CU branch of the Society of Professional Journalists organized a forum on cheque book journalism, particularly as it related to the Ramsey case. The panel consisted of two reporters from the National Enquirer, a reporter for the cable tabloid programme Hard Copy and Chuck Green of the Denver Post. Green, a strangely bitter, cynical man was known to be hyper-critical of the investigation, and of the role of the DA’s office in pursuing the case and in what Green took to be the protection of the Ramseys.
“…it’s not an important story, but it’s entertaining”
One of the many myths that would come to cling to the case like leeches on skin was that John Ramsey was plugged into a Boulder power and cultural elite, one which had circled the wagons to protect their own. It was not true but its mythic potency served a useful purpose of constructing the sense of guilt and responsibility which so many seemed to crave. The composition of the panel on a bleak, cold evening struck me as grotesque, but the room was packed with students ready to sit at the feet of these towering examples of the Fourth Estate. Here were paraded tales of unlimited expenses, traveling hither and thither across the country, picking away at the scabs of society. It was altogether an appalling experience, particularly given that while clearly many of the students in attendance were not taken in others had eyes that grew ever wider.
I was sitting on the front row, feeling angry and despondent at the proceedings. At one point I asked Green a question: “I know this is a big story because you, the media, made it a big story, but do you think it is an important story?” He paused for barely a moment and then uttered a comment that while certainly honest was as appalling as it was revealing: “no, it’s not an important story, but it’s entertaining…” There it was in all its grotesque shabbiness, a cynical truth that spoke volumes not just about Green, or the case, or the media but about the essential nature of the society at the end of the century. The torture and murder of a six year old child was now a form of entertainment. As I pondered the comment in all its horror and listened to the drivel that spewed from the mouths of the other panelists it seemed clear as could be that the Barbarians had indeed crossed the Tiber.
A couple of months later I was asked to talk to the monthly luncheon of the Boulder Democratic Party Women’s group. The other speaker was Mimi Wesson, a law professor at CU. My role was to comment on the media coverage, hers on the legal issues that the case had thrown up. At one point a lady of extended years stood up to ask a question. She wore a nice floral dress, and looked every bit the image of everyone’s favourite grandma. She then asked Mimi, in a voice as shrill as the early morning call of a shrike, “why don’t the cops just go in there and grab the Ramseys and take them down to the police station and get a confession out of them…” Applause swept round the room. Mimi responded bravely “err, because they have constitutional rights, we don’t live in a police state etc etc…”
What caught my attention however was not just the exchange but the fact that everyone’s grandma was literally frothing at the mouth. It was a terrible sight, troubling and frightening in what it meant for some of the most essential guiding principles of any civilized society – fairness, compassion, rationality, impartiality, the presumption of innocence, understanding based on evidence.
I came to think of these kinds of judgments as the problem of ‘the face,’ the extraordinary way in which people would look at the faces of John and Patsy Ramsey and see guilt. One e-mail posted on the internet from Theresa16@aol.com., said – and I reproduce it here exactly as she wrote it – “I think PATRICIA RAMSEY killed JonBenet. I must confess that each & every time I see patsy on television I get a COLD CHILL UP MY SPINE…patricia ramsey is EVIL…i am not trying to be cruel/nasty. but…WHY does patricia ramsey CONTINUOUSLY have that “GUILTY SMILE”???…”
Serious Juju and Lactate Fed Omniscience
There was another occasion when David and I were showing clips from the documentary at the Denver Press Club, a rather dowdy place with sodden hacks at the bar and a genial barman. At the end of the evening, after much discussion which revolved around the question of whether the Ramsey’s were complicit in their daughter’s death, a female journalist suddenly said “I think John Ramsey is a pedophile, he has a twitch.”
This was the sort of statement that all one can do in response is stare in blank amazement. But here we had a member of the fourth estate deciding, like some 19th century quack, that she could divine character from the physiology of appearance. And the assertion that there was a relationship between a twitch and pedophilia was up there with all those stereotypical child molesters who are fat and squat and slavering. The other slight problem with her analysis was that, after spending endless hours in an editing suite staring at John Ramsey’s face, I never did see a twitch. Her sight of this affliction seemed to suggest that the eye does indeed see what the heart desires, because it is quite clear that she wanted to see the pedophile in him. It came as no surprise when, in conversation, she hinted that there had been sexual abuse in her own life, not that this is sufficient excuse to accuse someone of abuse, willy-nilly.
I remember another occasion, one that I pick from innumerable possible examples, that was similar. I was being driven to Denver to do the Larry King programme. They had sent me a car, it was August and I was heading down I-36 in a Lincoln Town Car. The driver was Steve, a soft spoken man, as broad as he was tall, with a wispy beard and shaved head. He would not have looked out of place at a leather bar in the Village. In reality he was married with three children, whom he obviously adored, along with what he called “200 close relatives” in the Denver area, about whom he clearly cared. We chatted and he asked me about the King show and so it was that it emerged that we were to discuss the Ramsey case. He paused and then said “ what’s always puzzled me is why they look so guilty, especially her, Patsy looks guilty.” What I wondered, and not for the first time, does guilt look like? And why did such an obviously decent man utter such dangerous bigotry?
There is one other, powerful example worth recalling, of this tendency to hate but not know. It was the annual Christmas party of the SJMC, in 1998 – our documentary on the media coverage of the case had gone out on A&E in the Fall. Colleagues, friends and enemies, milling around, making small talk and trying to be pleasant. In several such conversations the Ramsey case emerged. In one I was talking to a well known, senior professor. She looked sharp, in the sense of flinty rather then be-suited, her skin was pale and taught. She suddenly muttered, “ I think they are despicable.” “Who?” I asked, somewhat dumbly. “The Ramseys.” “Why?” I asked somewhat stupidly. “Because they abused and killed their daughter.” I replied: “Tell me why you think that?” “Because,” said this senior professor, in a major research university “I’m a mother of two, I know…” I remember thinking, this mothering thing is serious juju, lactate fed omniscience. I also had an overwhelming desire for an extremely stiff drink as I contemplated this perfect coming together of vile bigotry and voodoo stupidity.
The Illusion of Knowledge
And yet I had heard something similar so many times in the weeks and months after the murder, a deep belief among so many people in the guilt of the Ramseys, a belief that could not possibly rest on anything of any substance since there clearly was absolutely nothing that was publicly known that could justify that belief. There was one thing, however, that could not be avoided, and that was the story which had been told by the media, a story drenched with theory, innuendo, allegation, rumour, a story that took as given the likely involvement of the parents. It was a situation that reminded one of similar statements by two very different people: Josh Billings’ comment that “ignorance ain’t so much a matter of not knowing, but knowing so many things wot ain’t so” and Daniel Boorstein’s that “the problem is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” If ever there was a case were ignorance masqueraded as knowledge it is the public and the media and the presumed guilt of John and Patsy Ramsey.
Initially the media focus was on John, who was publicly and repeatedly called a child molester and a killer. Then the focus moved inexorably to Patsy. There would be those who would argue that Burke was involved, and even JonBenet’s half-brother John Andrew. The fact that there was video footage of him taking money from an ATM in Atlanta on Christmas night did not necessarily deter some from this theory. One especially nasty tactic adopted by the tabloids would be to get someone to goad him into a reaction, with a photographer ready to photo this “aggressive” young man, lending force to the idea that he could be a killer.
To this day, over a decade later, I still hear comments from even apparently sane and reasonable people, unaware of their ignorance as to the most basic facts, who say they just “assume,” that the mother “did it.” End of story. No reflection. No sense of the appalling injustice of making such judgments on the basis of a feeling. There was, and is, an almost religious fervor to those who believed, and believe, in the Ramsey’s guilt, the fervor in fact, of the true believer, and anyone who questioned that ‘truth’ became a heretic.
I understand that underlying much of this is the child herself. In some photos a natural beauty shines through. In others there was the coquettish child of the pageants. In fact it was clear that much of the issue of the apparent loathing of the Ramseys by strangers begins and in a sense ends with JonBenet herself, with her looks and with her name and most of all with the photos and videos of her in those pageants. There is certainly something about the pageant world that comes over as so kitsch, cheapened culture, “bread soaked in perfume” to use Robert Essler’s bitter comment. In a remarkable outburst on Larry King Live, Janet McReynolds (wife of Bill McReynolds, who played Santa at a number of Ramsey Christmas parties and who would become in some eyes a serious suspect) captured this quite brilliantly – some might say too, and disturbingly, brilliantly. She said:
“I feel that ….the media is (sic) saying to this collective community…in some way she deserved to die. That, at least, is a message that I am getting: She deserved to die, she was too beautiful. She deserved to die because she was from an affluent family. She deserved to die because she lived in an upscale community. She deserved to die because her family taught her gestures which might be interpreted as sexually suggestive. She deserved to die because she was in beauty pageants….. And to me, that is a crucifixion of an innocent victim.”
These are strong words. In the bizarre Alice in Wonderland aspect of the case it is worth mentioning that Janet McReynolds’ daughter and a friend had, twenty years earlier, been abducted and assaulted. The date was the 26th December. Janet also wrote a play, Hey Rube, years before about the torture and murder of a young girl whose body is found in a basement. Bill himself had a harp. On the wooden frame were written the names of dead children.
Janet McReynolds’ observation to King had, however, at least to me, a certain insight. There was a deep, pervasive feeling it seemed that no child should have been dressed as JonBenet was. No child should have worn mini-adult clothing, prancing and preening and singing. It was this more than anything that surely lay behind the rush to judgment about the parents, that fed the fires of speculation, that so readily and for so many led to the conclusion that this was all about sex, abuse and therefore death. The fact that there are enormous numbers of children, pretty babies one and all, engaged in pageants seemed irrelevant, even though it is not unreasonable to argue that if there was a relationship between the pageant business and child murder there would be a lot more dead babies in our land.
Over time I came to feel, in the words of Rene Girard in a different time and place, that public opinion had become “overexcited and ready to accept the most absurd rumours…” It did show, however, that the mesalliance between a few members of law enforcement and the media had worked a dark, mendacious magic, and that what happened in Boulder in the days and months and years that followed was perilously close to a conspiracy. A conspiracy to have executed – because if ever was a capital crime, a homicidal act of unusual viciousness, this was it– two people who were innocent.
It was a spectacle that one should never see in mature democracy, with respect for the rule of law and the rights of citizens to be presumed innocent. It was not only perilously close to conspiracy, malevolent and dark, it was all so very sleazy. Real sleaze, not the run of the mill, pathetic thieving of a few bucks here, a few more there; not the wasted curb crawler, the pimp on the corner, the hooker in his sight; the dime-bag drug addict. That’s not sleaze, that’s wreckage. True sleaze is the absence of a guiding morality, an approach to life that is not conditioned by an ethic, by any fundamental sense of right and wrong, an amoral place in which ends justify any means, even if that involves lying – repeatedly. Trotsky once said that “the end may justify the means, so long as there is something that justifies the end.” There wasn’t. For many of those in the media and law enforcement, who connived in the witch-hunt, the chickens would eventually come home to roost accompanied, in the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, by several enormous black condors.
The problem was and is that the assault on reason, the trashing of their rights and the shredding of their character almost worked, as evidenced by the overwhelming disbelief that it didn’t.
October 13, 1999; the Justice Center, Boulder Colorado
A short, paunchy man walks out to the lawn in front of the Center to make an announcement. District Attorney Alex Hunter, has been in office for decades but he knows that his reputation is basically in tatters, that the events of the previous 34 months, the hysteria, the mistakes, the mendacity, the conflicts had damaged him, and so many others, in a way that was utterly beyond redemption. Hunter is there to announce to the whole world the results of the months long investigation by a grand jury into the murder of JonBenet. Surrounded by a throng of journalists, gawkers, cops, microphones, cameras Hunter announces: “…we do not have sufficient evidence to justify filing charges against anyone who has been investigated at this time…”
One could sense in Boulder, across the state, across the whole nation and beyond bewilderment, fury, disbelief and, for a small few, unimaginable relief. At an undisclosed location in east Boulder, John and Patsy Ramsey, who had returned from Atlanta so that their arrest would be out of sight of their son, Burke, and their other family, were gathered with their attorneys, Bryan Morgan, who was representing John Ramsey, Pat Burke, for Patsy Ramsey and Hal Haddon, the eminence grise of the whole defence team. A few close friends were also there to share the agony. Patsy and John knelt in front of the television, holding hands. In her other hand Patsy clutched what had been JonBenet’s favourite toy, a small porcelain kitten. In deep agony she moaned that she knew she was going to prison. As they heard Hunter’s words they screamed and hugged each other. A great wave of relief washed over all those in the room. They knew that if there was no indictment now, there almost certainly never would be. They had expected the worst. Bryan Morgan left the room, went outside, sat on rock and wept. John Ramsey followed and placed a comforting arm around his shoulder.
In Colorado Springs, retired detective Lou Smit had been driving his truck as the announcement was about to be made. Smit had been hired by Alex Hunter to act as an investigator for the DA’s office back in the spring of 1997. He was hired because of his extraordinary reputation as a detective who had conducted 250 homicide investigations and had never lost a case in court. When he arrived in Boulder, in that spring of 1997, he had assumed, because he had been following the story in the media, that the Ramseys were probably involved, and that proving this would be a “slam dunk.” These many months later, as he pulled over to the side of the road to listen to Hunter’s statement, he knew more than anyone that the case may have been many things, but slam dunk it was not. Smit had come to author what became known as “the Intruder theory,” his utter conviction that a high-risk, deeply violent, sexually sadistic pedophile had entered the Ramsey home, taken JonBenet from her room, asphyxiated her as an act of torture, sexually assaulted her and finished her off with a blow to the head. He resigned from the case in September of 1999, just ahead of the conclusion of the grand jury, because he refused to go along with what he assumed would be the indictment and, in his eyes, the railroading of two innocent people.
As he waited, that Fall day, sitting in his truck by the side of his road, he was gripped with a deep fear that what he would hear was that the Ramseys had been indicted, the first step on their painful and inevitable walk to the gas chamber. As he heard Hunter’s words, that their would be no indictment, a crushing sense of relief washed over him and, like those others in Boulder gathered around the Ramseys, he started to sob. In all of their minds they knew that despite everything, despite the fact that their had been what was in effect a conspiracy by law enforcement to have the Ramseys convicted, despite public hysteria and a malevolent media, despite all that, a certain kind of justice had prevailed and a profound injustice avoided.
A Devastating Critique
Elsewhere, everywhere, in homes and offices across America, disbelief. Since the beginning of January 1997, when the media first began to really cover the case, the American pubic had lived within a narrative for which there could be only one ending: indictment, trial, conviction, execution – certainly of Patsy and possibly of John as an accomplice. That this wasn’t going to happen beggared belief because, of course, we all “knew” they were guilty.
It is vitally important to remember just how certain almost everyone was that there would indeed be a trial and conviction. The lawyers had already discussed with law enforcement the way in which the Ramseys would be handed over, and had arranged with a bank the monies that would be needed for any bail. That there wasn’t going to be a trial one suspects, though this has never been made clear, was because Hunter did not ask the grand jury to vote. Had he done so they may well have indicted, and Hunter was smart enough to know the difficulty he would have at trial. That he felt this way was almost certainly because he understood two things: he would be up against a superb defence team; and he knew the power of the case that Smit had developed, one which had the backing of America’s premier crime profiler, John Douglas and the extremely bright assistant DA Trip DeMuth. DeMeuth had been asked by his boss, Pete Hofstrom, to “defence” the case – that is, to look at the evidence in the way that the defence attorneys would. On 12 May 1998 he presented his report to the police and members of the DAs. I have read the report. He picked away at the investigation, its intellectual and conceptual flaws, its clear biases, the brute truths it had refused to face, like a buzzard devouring dead carrion. It is a devastating critique. The police case was inherently flawed and weak.
We can see this now. Then was a different story. On Saturday September 25 1999 David Mills and I had lunch with Bryan Morgan at Turley’s Restaurant in Boulder. I had originally suggested the Regal Harvest House but Bryan demurred at that saying that there were too many paparazzi there. This was only a short time before the grand jury would report its findings. Boulder was once more crawling with journalists and camera crews, and Bryan was in no mood to be caught on camera talking to the two of us. His mood was also sombre, his mind utterly convinced that the Ramseys were going to be indicted. His reasoning seemed strong, resting on the received truth that grand juries will always go with the prosecution – the clichéd phrase is that any prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. He felt that Alex Hunter, the DA, had lost control of events and that Michael Kane, an assistant DA who was leading the grand jury inquiry was determined to indict. I tried to argue, somewhat precociously since Bryan had vast legal experience, that the mistake he was making was two-fold. Hunter did not seem to me to be out of the loop – I knew this because of a request I had from him for some information about another suspect, a request which could only be interpreted to mean that he and his office were looking at other people as possible suspects, even as the grand jury was drawing to a close. The nature of the request, and its timing, made it clear to me that he was far from convinced that the Ramseys would, or should, be indicted. It also seemed clear to me that this was not like all the other cases which fed that conventional wisdom about the malleability of grand jurors. Morgan, though, thought differently. We had met to discuss our plans for a second documentary, that would investigate the investigation. For that we would need the cooperation of his clients. He told us that this would depend upon the results of the grand jury, that this would, however, be our last conversation until things were resolved and that he was now “going into trial mode.” We shook hands at the end of lunch with the clear sense that we would not be speaking with him for a long time, until in fact the trial was over.
In the first documentary that David and I made about the case, we drew heavily on the media accounts, the story that was told about the death, the alleged role of the family, particularly of JonBenet’s parents. David knew little about the case, but we had both long shared a growing concern as to how the media in general, and the news media in particular, were evolving as we both saw on the far horizon the growing, dark cloud of market forces.
We had first met after the publication of my biography of Sir Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC from 1960 to 1969. Hugh was not just a great public service broadcaster, he was a great and brave man with a passionate belief in certain fundamental rights. I had met him when I wrote a chapter of my doctoral thesis about the manner in which he was forced to retire from the BBC – he was, to the government of the day too independent, a troublesome priest who had to go. When I got my doctorate in 1975 I had the temerity ( since I had at that time published hardly anything) to ask him if I could write his biography, to which he immediately said yes, an answer which would prove to be even more life-changing than entering the world of a murdered child in Boulder.
Next: Time to wake up Professor Tracey