American Culture

JonBenet, pt. 3: time to wake up, Professor Tracey

by Michael Tracey

In the mid-1980s David Mills had tried to get a budget together to make a documentary based on my work on public broadcasting, making the case that market forces would prove disastrous for broadcasting as a means of serving the public interest. We would also argue that deregulation, along the lines of American television, would be deeply unfortunate, along with the more nuanced argument that there is, anyhow, no such thing as de-regulation – there is only regulation (ie someone making decisions about content) in the public interest or a private interest. Culture is never, finally, neutral.

David’s efforts came to nothing. We did however keep in touch. He was aware, vaguely, of how during 1997 I had been drawn into talking about the case in scores of interviews, across all media. It was, in fact, a good opportunity to make the point about the problems of journalistic practice in a market-driven environment that he and I had discussed many times.

In September 1997, I decided to write an op-ed piece for the Sunday edition of the local paper, the Daily Camera (cf. appendix.) The peg for the piece was the debate about the role of the paparazzi in the death of Princess Diana in Paris on August 31, 1997. I argued that the question of the tabloid and mainstream media obsession with Diana should come as no surprise to anyone, particularly anyone living in Boulder. We had had for nine months a pitch perfect example of exactly the same kind of obsession in the coverage of JonBenet and her parents. At the end of January, a month after her death, there were three hundred reporters in Boulder, covering the case. The rhetorical question that the piece asked was simple: how come we all know the Ramseys are guilty? The answer was obvious, as I have already stated: that was the only story being told.

Shortly after the op-ed appeared I got a phone call from Bryan Morgan. I didn’t know much about Bryan then (we have since become good friends) other than that he represented John Ramsey and that he was founding partner, with Hal Haddon, of one of the most powerful criminal defense law firms in the western states. My immediate reaction was to wonder if there was something in the article I had written that had raised his hackles. I couldn’t imagine what that could be since I think I can reasonably claim that it was one of the first times the possibility had been raised in the media that maybe the case wasn’t so tight and shut as everyone was assuming. He told me that he wanted to come and talk, and so we did, meeting in my small cramped office in the Norlin Library on the CU campus. I explained to him my position, a mini-version of the arguments I expanded upon in the Prologue, and added that I had no view as to the guilt or innocence of his clients, and that my main concern was with the nature of the media coverage, the role of the tabloids and the fact that, guilty or innocent, the Ramseys still had rights that were being trashed. It was an interesting conversation but when he left I assumed that was the end of it.

A couple of days later, however, Bryan called me again with a startling proposal. He told me that Patsy Ramsey wanted to come and talk to one of my classes. I must admit that I burst out laughing. The Ramseys were the most wanted couple in America, the ultimate “get” for all the major media figures like Barbara Walters, Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, but they had been totally hunkered down, on the advice of their attorneys, for whom defense law 101 is your clients don’t talk, and here she wanted to come and talk to a bunch of college kids. We agreed to meet next day for lunch.

As I put the phone down, I had an idea and called David. I found him in a bookshop in Scotland. I briefly explained the context and then with that temerity again showing its head said that we should make a documentary that would allow us to make the point that we had discussed all those years before by telling the story of how the story of JonBenet had been told. And I added, if I can get the Ramseys will you produce it. Barely thinking (something that there would be many moments he would regret) he said yes.

The First Time I Met John Ramsey

I met Bryan the next day at The James Irish Pub. With him was Pat Burke, Patsy’s attorney. They had come expecting to discuss how we could get Patsy into one of my classrooms, without drawing any media attention. I suggested that I had a better idea. I told them that I wanted to make a documentary about the media story of JonBenet’s death, but that to do that I had to put their clients on camera. In television terms you could no more make such a movie than you could stage Hamlet without the Prince. There was also a practical reason, in that no network was going to put up a budget if they were not interviewed.

As they heard my proposal, Bryan and Pat – both of whom are very high-end criminal defense attorneys whose talents you definitely never want to be in a position to need – looked at me as if I were a lunatic. When your clients are assumed by the whole world to be guilty of killing their daughter, when an indictment is obvious, when the whole of the world’s media would love to talk to them and is anyhow spewing forth extraordinary amounts of so-called “information,” the absolutely last thing you do is let them talk. However, as I was about to learn for the first (but not the last) time, the normal laws of moral physics do not exist in the universe that swirls around her death. They said that they would put my proposal to the Ramseys, clearly assuming that there was no way this was going to happen. They were wrong. Within about 24 hours Bryan called me again and said, much to even my amazement, “they’re interested.”

The first time I met John Ramsey was in the foyer of the Hyatt in Marietta, Georgia, in early December 1997. He had come to take Bryan Morgan and I to his house on Paces Ferry Road. David would be flying in later from filming in Bucharest. As we shook hands on first meeting, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I were shaking hands with a child killer. That whole weekend had a kind of out of body sense to it: trying to negotiate an interview, all the while looking at them, searching for a clue, something that would reveal an inner, ghastly persona capable of killing.

Nothing. Here was a life, it seemed of wealthy ordinariness, caught up in vicious extra-ordinariness. There were other little clues that weekend. We went to dinner at a private, elegant club on Peachtree, in Atlanta, where they were well known. The waiter greeted them warmly, not it seemed to me out of any obsequiousness, rather out of genuine affection. At one point in the evening David, who was sitting next to Patsy, asked how she coped with the pressure of being accused by the whole world of killing her child. She started to cry. Not out loud, rather out of what seemed like a private agony. David and I would both note that John seemed not to react, carrying on his conversation with me. Instead Bryan got up, moved around the table, put his arms around her, and led her from the dining room. From another table, a lady rose, followed them out, and suggested she take Patsy into the ladies powder room so that she could compose herself.

Later David and I discussed this incident and John Ramsey’s apparent aloofness to his wife’s distress. Could it be, as many had suggested, that he did indeed have ice in his veins, that he had the cold stone heart of man who could indeed kill his own child with blithe indifference? Or could it be that in the context of unimaginable pressure and accusation he had to hold his composure, for his sake, for Patsy, for the family? For if not him who could, would, should? I now see John Ramsey as man with almost surreal courage, the likes of which I have never, before or since, seen.

The following morning, Sunday, David and I sat down with the Ramseys at the dining table in their home to discuss the interview. Bryan sat quietly alongside one wall. We had a drawn up a list of conditions that we insisted on. Looking back there was nothing if not British hubris in this: here were two people who were possibly, one or both, facing the death penalty, who were being begged by their attorneys not to talk to us, who were in demand by every major news organization in America for “the interview,” and here we were saying we’ll do this but only if you accept our conditions. These were basically that we could ask any question we wanted, no exceptions; that they would have absolutely no editorial involvement, indeed that they would never see the programme before it was broadcast; and that if we found out anything damaging to their case we would use it. The only clause which Morgan asked to be included was that we would agree not to broadcast the documentary during the time that any grand jury – if it were empanelled – was sitting. ( This clause would cause much confusion and silliness, and in the end was revoked by the attorneys at our bidding.)

That we had put these conditions forward came largely from the fact that we knew that any attempt to get a commission out of the UK would be very much dependent on our convincing the commissioning editor that what we were proposing was a piece of independent investigative journalism and not – as we would inevitably be accused – a softball interview. We laid out these conditions to John and Patsy, and generally discussed our ideas as to what we had in mind: a story had been told about them and this crime, a story which we wanted to interrogate to see if another story could have been told. They listened , agreed, we stood up, facing each other across the table, shook hands and they signed the agreement. Bryan Morgan went to an even whiter shade of pale because of what had just happened.

The inevitable thought that came to mind, however, was why would two people, if they were the killers, allow two Brits to interview them with these terms. If they were guilty, and they were still agreeable to cooperating, in the form of a major interview, then we were clearly involved in something that married the bizarre with the surreal. It could be argued that they, or at least those, like Susan Stine, whose counsel they sought knew something of my own position because of the numerous media interviews I’d given over the previous months. That position, however, was never that that they were innocent or guilty, only that the media coverage was vastly overdone and deeply prejudicial to any legal rights they had under the Constitutional provision to be presumed innocent.

However, they could have no idea about Mills’ position on the case if only because he didn’t really have one. I also explained to them that David came out of a tradition of broadcast journalism, that of British public service broadcasting, that treasured its integrity and independence. His mentor, Ray Fitzwalter of Granada Television, was legendary for both his nurturing of brilliant investigative journalism and for his utter, incorruptible integrity ( pity the producer who put in padded expenses to Ray, or didn’t nail the story factually as well as conceptually.) The Ramseys would have been stupid beyond belief to imagine that Mills would allow himself to become – please forgive the pun – a patsy.

Left Hand, Right Hand

When I returned home after this meeting there were the inevitable questions of: well, what are they like, did they do it? To which my reply, utterly subjective, grounded in nothing more than a feeling, was “no way.” But I was always quick to add: but even if they did, that’s irrelevant to us.

Later, as we filmed, the same experience would confront others. Dan Glick and Sherry Keene-Osborne, who wrote for Newsweek, were working with us as associate producers and had done some wonderful, revisionist journalism about the case. Neither had met the Ramseys until we started to film the interview. Both came away with that same sense of “no-way.” Having said that, it is important to understand that Dan and Sherry were as open to evidence that pointed at the Ramseys as that which pointed away. Dan and I in fact used to keep what we would call our left hand, right hand column moments. In the left column would be evidence that pointed away, the right evidence that pointed at them, and in particular Patsy. There was also one memorable moment at dinner the first night of filming, in March 1998. Bryan Morgan, tears in his eyes, recalled the moment when he realized that John at least was not involved. It was when, at one point in 1997, he was describing how JonBenet had died and it became clear to him that John “hadn’t a clue.”

For me, though, one reaction in particular stood out. We had hired as our cameraman-director Patrick Turley. Patrick is wonderful at his craft. He was by this time semi-retired. He had won numerous awards, and when Stanley Kubrick had wanted someone to shoot the New York scenes of Eyes Wide Shut, he had asked Patrick to do it – Kubrick famously never traveled. Patrick could also be testy, something that reflected both his perfectionism and an edgy psychology. He was also deeply cynical in a manner that Brits have mastered. He had in his career seen and filmed it all, war, mayhem, corruption. That same first night of the interview he said, to no-one in particular, “ I can’t see it.”

Of course, none of this was, or could, be conclusive. To have “seen” in the Ramseys “innocence,” would have been as wrong-headed, as irrational and stupid, as to have “seen” in them “guilt.” Over the next several years and two more documentaries , however, Mills and I became convinced that they were innocent. Following the December Atlanta meeting there were weeks of intense negotiation, a back and forth between me and the attorneys, as David was back in the UK trying to get a budget together.

What became quite clear was that whatever the advice, John Ramsey wanted to talk, indeed needed desperately to talk. I remember one key meeting, on a Saturday in the law offices of Mike Bynum, John’s friend and business partner. Everyone was there, (with one key exception): David, Dan, Sherry, Bryan, Pat Burke, Hal Haddon and Lee Foreman, the other senior partner in the Morgan, Haddon law firm. I made the pitch as to why they should do it, basically arguing that we would be professional, that their clients needed to be heard and definitely wanted to be heard.

There was surprisingly little opposition, because John Ramsey, the one vote that counted, had decided that we should proceed, and had told his attorneys of his decision. The deal was done. David got a budget from the British network, Channel Four, and in March 1998 we arrived in Atlanta. It had started.

There was one strange, vivid moment that, looking back, suggested the real extent to which JonBenet would enter my life. I had set my alarm for 6:00 am on the morning I would fly out to Atlanta. I had a dream about her, and recall vividly her saying, “Time to wake up Professor Tracey.” I awoke, slightly startled because it really did feel real. It was 5:59 am.

In January, 1998 I wrote a longish note to David suggesting what seemed to me to be the essential themes we needed to confront:

“David/ here are a few initial thoughts on the programme. We will obviously need to think long and hard about how to proceed. The trump card which we have is the Ramseys. Their involvement is what will get the attention. The down side to that is that we will be accused of being part of their PR campaign. So we will need to stay focused on the heart of the matter, which in effect is to put the American media on trial, and in so doing put America itself in the dock because without an audience for what Teddy White called “the schlock storm” it wouldn’t exist.Background

On December 26th 1996 the body of JonBenet Ramsey was found in the basement of her home. Her skull had been fractured, she had been strangled and she may or may not have been sexually assaulted. She was six years old, her home was in Boulder, Colorado and her death was to become the latest example of an American pastime, private tragedy as public spectacle.

Almost immediately two things happened:

1. her death became a major news story, with remarkably extensive coverage on tv and radio and in newspapers. At one point in January there were three hundred journalists in Boulder covering the story. It became a fixture on local television news, on cable programmes and primetime network news magazines. Even the London Sunday Times was to carry it as the cover story for its magazine, which featured a photo of JonBenet and the line “The Kiddie-Porn Killing: How the murder of a six year-old beauty queen chilled America’s soul.” That in itself was interesting because what it represented was the way in which an essential interpretation of what had happened, that the case was an example of familial sexual abuse, had become so prevalent that it had crossed the Atlantic.

2. there was an immediate and widespread assumption, fueled by media coverage, which was itself partly fed by the Police Department, that the parents were guilty of killing the child. The flow of “information” went: police dept leaks info to media, including tabloids and local paper, which publishes it as ‘fact,” which reassures the public, which has already been reassured by Durgin’s statement ( this was the mayor’s statement on January 2, that the police were not scouring the streets of Boulder for a child killer, a comment she said, when we interviewed her for the first documentary, she very much regretted) and which is anyhow disposed to believe the spin because of its own sense of how these kinds of crime happen, and which is anyhow fascinated with the case, and which wants more, which leads to further leaks to the increasing numbers of journalists covering the case, and so on as a public “understanding” of what happened and who did it becomes a powerful and unquestioned orthodoxy.

There is an obvious connection between the two, since the overwhelming tone of the coverage has often implied, and sometimes overtly stated, that the parents were guilty. It is clear that this was a conclusion that was arrived at early on by the police. Their problem was that they were then unable to make the case so that an indictment could be brought. This is why they decided to use the media to create a climate of public opinion which would force the DA to bring the Ramsey’s to trial. In my first conversation with Bryan Morgan, John Ramsey’s attorney, he said that when the story of the case was eventually told the real hero who would emerge would be a figure in the DA’s office (I now know that Bryan had Pete Hofstrom in mind, a man who was widely regarded not just an excellent assistant district attorney but someone who was ethically unimpeachable, and who has maintained a studied silence on the case to this day.) He seemed to be suggesting that it was this person in particular who had been primarily responsible for resisting the pressure to go to trial. In the recent Louise Woodward case ( an English nanny working in New England who had been accused of killing a child) it became clear that many Brits were surprised, shocked even, by the role of the media in the case, for example the television appearance of the parents before the jury had arrived at a verdict. The reality is that there was nothing unusual in this in terms of the relationship between the US media and the judicial process. In the context of the Ramseys there is no-one in the whole of the United States who has not been repeatedly told that the parents did it. One real puzzle, however, which may be beyond the scope of a television programme is why there was such a ready and potent willingness among the public to accept such an interpretation given that there is little meaningful evidence to sustain such certainty.”

Looking back there is little that I would change.

Storming the Bastille of Words

The errors in the media story were especially egregious precisely because they were fundamentally unfair and utterly denied the Ramseys the most basic of rights, to be presumed innocent. In the end the system worked and there was no indictment, but it was all perilously close.

The point David and I have been trying to make through the documentaries was that the story of JonBenet’s murder was a perfect avatar for a brute and new reality about American journalism, one which is increasingly boorish, banal, corrupt and debased, and that more importantly its condition was metastasizing into the body politic, and in particular into the judicial process and the rights of the citizen under the Constitution. So the brute premise was that even those – perhaps especially those – who would eventually be found guilty of heinous crime had rights. This was, it seemed to me something which never came close to being granted to the Ramseys.

There is, I believe and hope, a certain reasonable purpose in spending a decade of one’s life focused on one child murder. I am, I recognize, grasping here for a certain justification of purpose. Why her, why this case? I’ve thought about this question many times, but only recently began to fathom what might be an answer, with the help of many hours of conversation with a wise and gentle man whom I’ll refer to here simply as DG. It was, in fact, those conversations that guided me to the thoughts that I expressed in the Prologue.

In the same year that JonBenet died there were 804 children below the age of twelve murdered in the United States. She was one. Yet her death took on iconic status. She became Marilyn, Elvis, the Diana of slaughtered children, as her name entered the inner sanctum of public memory and knowledge. About that six year old child, about her demise, a mountain of lies were told. And if we cannot tell the truth about a child’s death, what else can we, as a culture, lie about?

The right to know the truth about JonBenet’s death is no different than the right to know the truth about, say, war and security. Tom Paine warned that if the majority of the people were denied the truth and ideas of truth it was time to storm what he called the “Bastille of Words.” David Mills and I set out to storm that Bastille of Words about the Ramsey case using the power of television. One obvious aspect was that as a student of culture who has spent many years writing and talking about the deepening corruption of cultural and, in particular, journalistic values here was a pitch perfect example of the argument, and it was on my own door step. As I suggested in the Prologue, the nature of the coverage suggested that the country I had idealized as a boy was falling well short of those ideals.

I was also motivated by a profound sense that, not only was she an innocent about whose death the truth should out, a child who had not, in all likelihood been killed by her parents, but that the family were being bullied, by the media and a great swathe of the public, and in my world view there is a special place reserved on the inner ring of hell for the bully.

I’ve felt this way since childhood, perhaps because when your father dies when you are only four years old the world becomes a scary place, and you develop a fearful sense that it is peopled by those who will prey on the vulnerable and when you are four, and your dad has gone, who will protect you? Yourself, if you can. And with that comes a belief, at least it did with me, that when you see someone being bullied, you have a moral responsibility to help them.

I guess it was as simple as that: this was not the America of my boyhood dreaming; it didn’t make sense that they would do this; and I felt profoundly sorry for them.

Next: Daxis


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