Burke Ramsey Lawsuit: JonBenet Family Lawyer Rips CBS Docuseries and More

Last week, Burke Ramsey, older brother of JonBenét Ramsey, who was murdered in her Boulder home on Christmas Day 1996, sued Dr. Werner Spitz, a Michigan-based forensic pathologist, for $150 million. The focus of the complaint was Dr. Spitz's assertion in a CBS Detroit interview flowing from the network docuseries The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey that Burke killed his sister nearly twenty years ago.

The Spitz lawsuit maintains that a similar action will soon be filed against CBS and Critical Content, the company that produced The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey — and in a wide-ranging conversation, Lin Wood, the Atlanta-based lawyer who has long represented the Ramsey family, stresses that such litigation is just around the corner despite the network's defense of the program. A statement attributed to CBS reads, "The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey was meticulously and responsibly researched, and its information was responsibly presented. CBS stands by the broadcast in every regard."

Wood's letter to CBS demanding a retraction is on view below, along with the Burke Ramsey lawsuit.

Our interview with Wood touches upon his reasons for allowing Burke to be interviewed on Dr. Phil's program prior to the broadcast of the docuseries; previous successful suits against major news and tabloid agencies over Burke-did-it claims; the reasons Wood didn't go after former detective A. James Kolar for Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenét?, the 2012 book that he characterizes as the backbone of The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey; comparisons between the Burke allegations and those leveled against Richard Jewell, whom Wood defended after the ex-security guard was improperly treated as a suspect in a 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics; the link between the Burke lawsuit demand amount and a sex-tape-related lawsuit won by former wrestler Hulk Hogan over Gawker; Wood's response to those who disagree that Burke's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, have been formally exonerated by authorities in Boulder such as former Boulder district attorney Mary Lacy; his take on a grand jury's 1999 intention to indict the couple for felony child abuse resulting in death plus an accessory charge — a move short-circuited by the decision by Alex Hunter, Lacy's predecessor as DA, not to sign the indictments; and his characterization of docuseries contributors such as Dr. Spitz and Henry Lee, a scientist best known for his work on the O.J. Simpson case, as "television expert whores."

Continue to read the full transcript of our Wood discussion, followed by the aforementioned lawsuit against Dr. Spitz and the retraction letter Wood sent to CBS.

Westword: Why have you decided to file suit in this case, particularly given that over the course of twenty years, lots of people have made wild accusations against members of the Ramsey family?

Lin Wood: Since 1999 and 2000, when I successfully sued Star magazine, the New York Post and Court TV for falsely accusing Burke Ramsey of the death of JonBenét, no member of the mainstream media or even the tabloid media has dared to make that accusation against this young man again. He was officially and publicly cleared — being described as not being a suspect or a possible suspect by the Boulder Police Department in May of 1998 and the Boulder District Attorney's Office in May of 1999. And there has been no evidence developed in the case since then other than DNA evidence developed in 2008 that was used by then-district attorney Mary Lacy to exonerate the entire family. Burke had already been exonerated. So other than, as you say, wild accusations that have floated around in the Internet world over the last twenty years, no credible attack has ever been made against Burke Ramsey since the foolishness in 1999 and 2000.

Jim Kolar's book was published a few years ago. It was self-published. It had no credibility. No mainstream publisher would touch it. I know for a fact that Jim Kolar approached a number of members of the mainstream media in New York seeking interviews to publicize the book, and they refused to interview him. They refused any attempt to give publicity or credibility to his book, Foreign Faction. And that book is the cornerstone of the CBS docuseries that was recently broadcast. So while Jim Kolar was not worth a lawsuit a few years ago, because I did not feel he had any credibility and I did not want to give him the appearance of credibility that would publicize his book by filing a lawsuit against him, obviously things have changed now, because CBS used this book as part of its script for the docuseries.

You've probably seen me quoted as saying this series was a fraud. There was no new investigation by a new team of experts. This was a scripted show, primarily off of Jim Kolar's book

Did you know in advance of the CBS docuseries' airing that this was going to be a theme? And did you reach out in any way to producers to try to present a different point of view or to let them know that litigation would be forthcoming if they followed that particular route?

The answer is yes to both questions. I had received information in the early part of the summer that CBS intended to air a docuseries based on true crime, clearly trying to build on the success about the true-crime series about O.J. Simpson and the program The Making of a Murderer. And I understood they were going to be relying on Jim Kolar's theories. So I was relatively confident they were going to make the mistake of using Burke Ramsey. And I did reach out to CBS before the broadcast, and I did inform them that if they did in fact make those accusations against Burke, a lawsuit would be filed. Which should come as no surprise to them.

I had agreed for Burke to be interviewed by Dr. Phil McGraw. And that was because I understood the accusations were likely going to be made, and I felt like it had reached the point where Burke, who has been silent for the last twenty years and has not given any interviews, should exercise what the law refers to as his right of reasonable response. I had also hoped that good judgment would prevail and CBS might even at the last minute reconsider the error of its ways when Burke gave the interview, which also discussed a lot of evidence in the case. I hoped that CBS might reconsider and not make the accusations against Burke.

Obviously, those efforts on my part failed. CBS abandoned all of its journalistic principles in airing this show, and I think CBS will have to pay a severe penalty in terms of monetary damages for what it's done to this young man.

I've been practicing law for many years, and in the last twenty years, since the Richard Jewell case, I have handled a number of high-profile, public-figure-plaintiffs libel cases, and I also clearly keep up with the area in terms of other cases. I've never seen a case this egregious. And for it to have occurred under the CBS brand, with its reputation for integrity, makes the defamation and the accusation that much more egregious. This young man will live the rest of his life with people going onto Google and finding headlines saying, "CBS proved Burke Ramsey killed his sister." CBS. It's unbelievable.

When was the last time you communicated with CBS?

After the series, I sent a demand for litigation hold to CBS — which is a demand that they preserve all documentary evidence, including electronic evidence, related to the broadcast. I followed up with another letter — a formal retraction demand, which under California law must be sent within twenty days of the broadcast. California law gives CBS thirty days to correct.

I have no expectations that CBS is going to see the light and correct its error. I've never found media defendants to be that smart. So I would expect a lawsuit will be filed at the end of October or the beginning of November.

So the only reason you went forward with the current lawsuit against Dr. Spitz but didn't file concurrently against CBS is because of the California law requiring what is essentially a waiting period?

Correct. Michigan law only provides that you must allow a reasonable time period, which has been defined as being as short as five-plus days. So a retraction demand was sent to Werner Spitz. His lawyer did write me and told me that he had no interest in retracting, so we went ahead and prepared the lawsuit against him — and we did not have the time constraints we have in California. That explains why Spitz was filed first. It doesn't mean to give him any greater role in the defamation. But what Spitz did do — Spitz gave an interview to CBS Detroit and explicitly made the accusations, directly as a statement of fact, that Burke killed JonBenét. That's a separate accusation beyond his role in the CBS docuseries. So I was able, under law, to get that lawsuit filed, but I would have sued him separately for that interview anyway. He'll also be a party to the CBS case for defamation arising out of the docuseries itself.

There's been speculation that your comments about a planned lawsuit wouldn't result in an actual filing because of concern that the discovery process would result in the release of material the Ramsey family wouldn't be comfortable putting out in public. Was that ever a consideration?

The idea that there would be any hesitation in suing over this case because of fear of the discovery process is utter nonsense. I have already filed and successfully pursued three cases on behalf of Burke Ramsey, all those years ago. I have also filed defendant cases for John and Patsy Ramsey. They have been deposed. There is absolutely no concern whatsoever in engaging fully in the discovery process.

Discovery in this case is going to support my client's position. Because his position is based on fact and evidence. On the other hand, discovery is going to expose Dr. Spitz in his case and CBS in its case. It's going to expose the utter lack of evidentiary foundation for the accusations against Burke Ramsey. And it's going to, I believe, prove by clear and convincing evidence that this accusation was manufactured in order to produce big ratings during September sweeps and get the CBS docuseries off to a good start with an intent to avoid CBS's internal standards. That's because they did not allow this broadcast to be produced by 48 Hours. 48 Hours is the arm of CBS that produces true-crime programs in what might be generally described as the entertainment area. 48 Hours has done at least three shows on the JonBenét Ramsey case. They were, in fact, supposed to produce the twentieth-anniversary segment. But it was pulled by CBS Entertainment to give the show to Critical Content. And in so doing, it allowed the show to be produced outside CBS's internal standards. They were allowed to have greater freedom to make this false accusation against Burke, which no other show has made against this young man.

Is it your hope, since there are still more than two months before the twenty-year mark of this crime, that the lawsuits will dissuade other producers or news agencies from going down this particular path?

I want to be diplomatic, okay? In my view, only a damned fool would accuse Burke Ramsey of the murder of his sister. I am not in the business of chilling speech. I am in the business of holding entities and individuals accountable for false accusations. And I will certainly aggressively do so if anyone makes this same accusation against this young man.

I can't tell you in strong enough words: There is absolutely not one iota of physical evidence that links this young man to the murder of his sister.... It's not even a matter of exonerating him. It shows that he is not even a legitimate suspect, as acknowledged by law enforcement authorities publicly in 1998 and 1999. So in order to accuse this young man, you've either got to intentionally misrepresent the evidence, intentionally ignore the evidence, or manufacture evidence to come up with the sensational, for-profit headline that Burke Ramsey was somehow involved in the murder of his sister.

I call it outrageous, but it's really hard to find the right word to adequately describe CBS and any other member of the responsible media who would make this type of accusation against this young man. For the past twenty years, since age nine, Burke Ramsey has lived with the burdens of his sister being murdered, his mother and father accused periodically in national media frenzies, and being investigated — his parents being investigated for the murder, and his mother dying. This young man has had a lot on his shoulders this past twenty years. And yet he has been able to successfully maintain his private life. He's a good, fine young man, a graduate of college, gainfully employed and trying to live as normal a life as he possibly can under these extraordinary circumstances. And for CBS to now add to that young man's burdens.... The fact is, he'll live the rest of his life knowing that people Googling him will see that he has been falsely been accused of murder, to see that he has been falsely portrayed as a killer since age nine. That will impact every business and social relationship this young man will ever engage in.

It is unconscionable conduct that CBS would openly defy the findings of legitimate law enforcement authorities, would ignore actual evidence in the case, would manufacture evidence, and would go out and pay money to these television expert whores such as Werner Spitz and Henry Lee, to come onto their air to give some kind of feigned credibility to these false accusations.

If you can't tell how pissed off I am, I am not apparently able to adequately express myself. I didn't fall off the truck yesterday. I've been around the block with some of the largest media companies in the country in significant libel cases. This one is, among those I've represented, the most egregious libel case I've ever seen. I can't imagine what a judge or a jury's reaction would be. I think I know. I think I got a taste of it in the earlier cases I filed on behalf of Burke. But those defendants had the good sense to promptly settle their cases with Burke and not repeat the foolishness, the unlawful accusations.

You'll notice that I sued Spitz for $150 million. It's not by coincidence that was the verdict in the Hulk Hogan-versus-Gawker case. And that message was intentional. Let me assure, the CBS case is going to be for a hell of a lot more than $150 million.

Will you take similar actions if news organizations come forward and accuse John Ramsey or Patsy Ramsey should they definitively say one or both of them did it?

Patsy Ramsey — this is one of the tragedies of our legal system. Once Patsy Ramsey died, any cause of action for future defamation expired, was lost, at her death. In other words, a lawsuit cannot be brought by someone's estate for defamation. So if a member of the credible mainstream media wants to make an accusation against Patsy, despite the public exoneration from the Boulder District Attorney's Office, I can't bring action against them. I wish I could. If I could, I would. But I cannot.

If someone accuses John Ramsey, that's a different story. I'm not going to sit idly by and let John Ramsey be falsely accused of the murder of his daughter. Nor am I going to sit by and let John Ramsey be accused of an unlawful cover-up of his daughter's murder, which would include the accusation that John Ramsey lied to police. So CBS is likely going to be on the other end of a lawsuit in the near future filed by John Ramsey. Because the docuseries clearly accuses John Ramsey of a cover-up of this false accusation related to Burke killing his sister. At least for the present time, the focus will be on the case filed by Burke. But at some point in the foreseeable future, John Ramsey will also file a lawsuit against CBS.

I do want to say this. I understand the public's need to know. And I understand the public's curiosity and interest in the JonBenét Ramsey case. And I have a healthy respect for the First Amendment when it is properly exercised. So I don't mean to discourage a robust discussion of the facts of this case and the evidence in this case. I would encourage it to the extent that it remains a matter of public interest. What I will not encourage and I will not tolerate is a media individual or a media entity, in discussing the evidence, taking the additional step of accusing Burke Ramsey of murdering his sister, because there is no evidence to support that accusation. Zero evidence. And it defies the public statements by law enforcement about this young man not even being a possible suspect in this case. So talk about the case. Talk about it accurately. Debate the evidence. But that doesn't require, nor does it justify, accusing an individual like Burke Ramsey, or even his father, John Ramsey, when we know as a matter of fact that Burke has never been considered a suspect and John Ramsey has been exonerated.

If there was any evidence to base a charge against John Ramsey over these twenty years, that charge would have been made.

As we know, a grand jury was ready to indict John Ramsey at one point.

Be careful when you talk about what the grand jury was ready to do. I've seen the recommendation of the grand jury, and it certainly didn't involve Burke Ramsey. It talked about assisting someone in the first-degree charge of murder. That wouldn't apply to Burke.

A district attorney can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Now, that grand jury sat for eighteen months. What we don't know are all the other recommendations that were submitted to that grand jury by the district attorney's office. I'm sure, if you saw them, that you would find things that said Patsy Ramsey should be charged with first-degree homicide. They obviously answered no, or they didn't answer. So those recommendations themselves are internally confusing, if not contradictory. I suspect you had a grand jury that was so confused after eighteen months of being pushed hard by the Boulder police to make some recommendation that it finally came up with these nonsensical, contradictory recommendations that Alex Hunter, in the proper exercise of his prosecutorial duty, knew he could never sustain beyond a reasonable doubt. And he did the right thing by not bringing the charge.

Guilt or innocence is not determined by a grand jury recommendation. And it certainly is not determined when that recommendation is rejected by the district attorney's office. It doesn't take much to make out a prima facie case. It takes a lot to make out a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt. And there is no evidence that would support that charge against John and Patsy.

I've always said it would be nice if the entire grand jury procedure was released to the public. All of the testimony. All of the recommendations submitted to the grand jury. When you pull out a small piece of a puzzle developed over eighteen months, it doesn't give you the context to understand what that one piece of the puzzle really means and where it fits. Somebody decided to leak that, and then it was affirmed by a judge that it should be released. They should have released the whole thing. I have long advocated, on behalf of the Ramsey family, that all of the evidence should come out, all of the testimony given to the grand jury, so the public can draw its only conclusions. Put the evidence out there, and people can look at the real evidence. The only conclusions that have been drawn from the real evidence so far is that John and Patsy Ramsey have been exonerated by the district attorney based on DNA evidence, and it was deemed in 1998 and 1999 that Burke Ramsey was not a suspect. So I don't have any fear of people drawing their own conclusions as long as they are doing it based on a full and accurate representation of the evidence. It's the misinformed accusations, the uninformed accusations, the speculative accusations for profit that get my attention when it comes to filing lawsuits against individuals or entities.

There are many observers out there who would dispute your use of the word "exonerated" when it comes to what the district attorney's office said about John and Patsy Ramsey. Tell me why "exonerated" is the right word from your perspective.

Don't make it my word. Go back to what the district attorney's office said. They said going forward, the Ramseys would be treated as victims, because that's what they are. That's their role in this case. An apology was issued to the family for the years of accusations and media coverage they'd had to endure. That 2008 statement by Mary Lacy cannot be reasonably interpreted as anything other than a public and official exoneration.

Now, can people disagree with Mary Lacy? Yes, provided those people are basing their disagreement of an informed review of the accurate evidence.

I'm not a criminal lawyer, though between the Ramsey case and the Jewell case, I sometimes feel as if I was a quasi-criminal lawyer. But what I've learned, which I think is consistent with common sense — and I think most people who rushed to accuse the Ramseys in this case literally checked common sense at the door — but what I can say is that we know as a matter of fact under the actual evidence that DNA, likely saliva, not touch DNA, was found in the blood spot in the crotch of JonBenét's underwear. And that DNA was found under her fingernails. We know that DNA was not Ramsey [DNA]. The police department knew that within a couple weeks of the murder, but didn't bother to report it to the district attorney's office for months. But we know that the markers were sufficient in the underwear to be certified for the CODIS database. And while the fingernail DNA didn't have enough markers for the database, the markers that were discovered were consistent with the DNA found in her underwear.

Then, along in 2008, with the new technology of touch DNA, it was found that there was DNA found on both sides of the waistband of her pajama bottoms. That DNA is tested and guess what: It matches the DNA found in her underwear, which was consistent with the DNA found under her fingernails. No legitimate law enforcement individual would ever look for an innocent explanation of foreign DNA found on the body of a murder victim. The fact that the Boulder Police Department attempted to try to justify the DNA somehow being there from the manufacturing process in Asia is laughable. It defies any legitimate use of DNA evidence connected with a crime.

So what do you have? You have evidence that does not support a charge against the family. You have DNA evidence found in three areas on the body of the victim that matches. You find the person's DNA, you match the DNA to an individual. One and one equals two. You're going to solve this murder. This is a DNA case, and only those people who have a longstanding conviction that the Ramseys were involved, only those people obsessed with Ramsey guilt, will try to explain away the clear, hard evidence that exonerates the family.

Unfortunately, many of the opinions that were shaped in this case were shaped early. And then it becomes what's called confirmation bias, where you view everything through the prism of what belief you had previously formed. The public was deceived in this case, intentionally by the Boulder Police Department leaking false and accusatory information to the media about this family. We know that as a matter of sworn testimony.

So do I understand that there are people who want to twist Mary Lacy's public exoneration into something other than what it clearly was? Yes. Do I understand that people want to continue to defy the evidence and make some accusation against the Ramseys? I understand that, too, because the false information leaked by the police was so overwhelmingly against this family that there were conclusions drawn by the public that are very, very difficult to change. I'm sure there are still people who continue to believe that Richard Jewell bombed the Olympics even though Eric Rudolph pled guilty to the crime. That's what happens, because the whisper of innocence never overcomes the shout of guilt.

I understand it. But when it comes to someone with credibility in the media making the accusation, I'm going to deal with it. And I'm going to teach them a legal lesson they will not forget.

Lin Wood Retraction Demand to CBS and Critical Content Re: Burke Ramsey

Burke Ramsey v. Werner Spitz

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts