This week, Charlie Brennan of the Boulder Daily Camera reported that a 1999 Boulder grand jury voted to indict John and Patsy Ramsey for the death of their 6-year old daughter, JonBenet, but that then District Attorney Alex Hunter declined to prosecute.
As an investigative reporter who has extensively covered the Ramsey case for nearly 16 years since it began and was personally acquainted with Hunter, this came as a surprise even to me.
Although the Ramsey’s children were cleared early, media reports originally shined a light on the Ramsey’s as the key suspects in the case. After the grand jury cleared the parents however, the family’s lawyers launched a successful public relations offensive that convinced most of the public that the Ramsey’s were innocent.
Now, several years later we are hearing for the first time that the Boulder grand jury found that JonBenet was killed as a result child abuse, and that the abuse was somehow caused by one of the parents.
Certainly, this is not by any means evidence that the Ramsey’s are in fact guilty, but it does chisel away at the public relations campaign the Ramsey’s mounted during the past several years to assert their innocence.
During my time in Boulder from 1997-2000, I spent a considerable amount of time as a cub reporter with Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter. Hunter was a cautious prosecutor who was driven by the probability of winning a conviction, not passion. Since there was no statute of limitations on murder, Hunter often told me, “We only get one shot at this. If we go for it too early we could lose and then JonBenet will never get justice. There’s no reason we can’t wait until we’re ready.”
Alex Hunter knew that proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial is a much higher threshold than convincing a grand jury. After all, the grand jury process only allows prosecutors to make their case and call witnesses without having to face the challenge of defense lawyers.
Strategically, Hunter made a lot of sense, and in my opinion, still does. Hunter viewed the case through the scope of reason, not emotion. However, there were others in the law enforcement community who believed the case should have been presented for trial.
Among the many police officers that stood out at the Boulder Police Department was the case’s lead detective, Steve Thomas. Thomas—whom I once nicknamed ‘JonBenet’s Avenger’—logged more overtime hours than any other officer working on the case. He was convinced that Patsy Ramsey had killed her daughter as a result of child abuse and fought passionately to convince his commanders and prosecutors to go on the offensive and take their chances at trial.
In the many conversations I had with Thomas during the time he was in pursuit of JonBenet’s killer he expressed a deep loyalty to JonBenet, and I was convinced that if anyone could ultimately solve the case, it was he.
Thomas often told me that he understood Hunter’s strategic decision to be wary of prosecution, but always came to the same conclusion: “We owe it to that little girl to take the chance.” Thomas’s attitude was essentially the old adage, “Let justice be done though thy heavens fall.”
In 1998, Thomas resigned in protest, publicly announcing his belief that Patsy Ramsey was involved in JonBenet’s death, and soon thereafter, the Ramsey’s launched a major legal and public relations campaign to discredit him. Thomas was hammered over and over by intruder theorists, and after debating the Ramsey’s on CNN in 2000 the family sued him for defamation and did everything they could to silence him.
Ten years later, after Hunter left office, his prosecutorial successor Mary Lacy shocked the law enforcement community by “exonerating” the Ramsey’s. Lacy’s exoneration came under heavy fire by the Boulder Police and FBI because they felt she had become too personally involved with the family, and authorities worried that her decision was driven by sympathy, not evidence.
They were also critical because although there is evidence that an intruder may have killed JonBenet, there is more compelling evidence that points to the likelihood that Patsy Ramsey was involved in the murder.
Part of Lacy’s decision was driven by the fact that the most experienced homicide investigator who had worked on the case, Lou Smit, believed that the Ramsey’s were innocent. For years, many people believed that the grand jury had not voted to indict the Ramsey’s because of Smit’s testimony.
Now we know otherwise. In fact, what the Boulder grand jury ultimately decided was that Steve Thomas was right all along.
There is no conclusive evidence who killed JonBenet Ramsey. However, those who passionately pursued justice for her deserve to be credited. The Boulder grand jury’s decision may not be conclusive evidence of the Ramsey’s guilt, but it is, to some extent, a vindication of the police department’s investigation and the lead detective who devoted himself to finding her killer.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is an investigative journalist currently reporting on the Russian Federation.