Five Things We Learned From the JonBenet Ramsey Media Barrage

It's been almost twenty years since six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in her Boulder home, but it feels like yesterday. Maybe because it was yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, and so on, that we were subjected to a blitz of cheesy reenactments of the crime on multiple channels, courtesy of numerous television specials bent on solving Colorado's strangest unsolved homicide — or, at the very least, scoring some ratings during sweeps month. 

The programs vary widely in quality, ranging from the rankly exploitative (thanks, A&E; you never disappoint) to at least one earnest, ambitious investigation of previously much-neglected evidence. Here's a quick summary of what one longtime observer took away from this epic wallow in all things Ramsey.

1. Dr. Phil, Meet Dr. Shill

I noted last week that Dr. Phil's much-ballyhooed three-part interview with JonBenét's brother, Burke, was a big slice of nothin', unless you get a thrill out of watching an awkward young man chuckle and grin inappropriately while blandly denying any involvement in his sister's death — and failing to exhibit any curiosity about the whole mess. What became glaringly obvious in the final segment, aired Monday, was that the tedious non-event was a setup for Phil and lawyer Lin Wood (who's represented the Ramseys and the good doctor in separate libel matters) to declare the entire family completely "cleared" by DNA evidence — an assertion that the CBS docuseries The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey would contradict on the same network a few hours later. Wood has threatened to sue CBS on Burke's behalf over the docuseries, but Dr. Phil made several misleading assertions in his efforts to absolve the Ramseys, including a claim that the grand jury (which in 1999 voted to indict parents John and Patsy) only heard the Boulder Police Department's version of events. Actually, investigator Lou Smit presented his intruder theory to the grand jury, too. 

One side note: John Ramsey declared that his appearance on Dr. Phil would be his last public interview. Given the pre-screened nature of his media appearances over the past nineteen years, he was probably tired of knocking softballs out of the park. 

2. The Ramsey House Was One Busy Place on Christmas Night

In statements to police, John and Patsy Ramsey talk about returning home Christmas night from a dinner party, putting a sleepy JonBenét to bed, and turning in themselves. Not a creature was stirring, and all that sort of thing. But on Dr. Phil, Burke talked about heading downstairs to put together a toy he'd received for Christmas. The Case of investigators believe JonBenét was up and roaming around, too, which would account for the bit of pineapple that turned up in her autopsy. And then, of course, there's the enhanced version of the 911 call Patsy made the next morning. While the presentation of that call on the CBS program was hardly conclusive — couldn't these retired FBI guys get better engineering than that? — it does suggest three voices chatting in the house after Patsy thought the call was disconnected. Burke insists he was still sleeping, or pretending to be asleep, in his room, but it sounds like things were a lot busier before the police arrived than we've been led to believe.

3. Fake Investigations Are Cheaper Than Real Ones

You have to give CBS credit for at least trying to go the forensic route in The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, rather than just rehash the usual list of suspects and experts. The producers arranged for a costly reproduction of certain rooms of the Ramsey house as a visual aid to its inquiry, brought in well-respected retired law enforcement "hosts," including Dr. Henry Lee, and spent a great deal of time methodically debunking some of the persistent mythology of the case. (The groundwork for that debunking had already been laid by James Kolar's book Foreign Faction; although he didn't get much air time, Kolar was a key consultant to the program.) Still, the last-minute decision to cut the program from six to four hours, out of fears that America was getting too saturated with Ramsey shows, left a lot of holes and muddled discussions about DNA and ransom-note linguistics. An entire sequence in which Lee took DNA samples off replicas of certain pieces of evidence proved exactly nothing, except possibly to suggest some avenues the real cops might want to take with the real evidence some day. 

Continue for more things we learned from the JonBenét Ramsey media barrage.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast