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JonBenet's parents: How an indictment became an "exoneration"

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If you happened to tune into cable news or talk radio or any other variety of media late last week for the first time in fourteen or fifteen years, you might think things were stuck in an endless loop. There was that harpy Nancy Grace, grilling forensic whiz Henry Lee about the mysterious male DNA in a six-year-old girl's underwear. There was Peter Boyles, scourge of the local airwaves, yakking it up with Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman about small foreign factions and other weird details mentioned in the world's most peculiar ersatz ransom note.

Is somebody humming "La Macarena"? Is that Slick Willie in the White House, feeling our pain and ogling thong-snapping interns? What year is it, and how do we get out of this wormhole?

Some sense of dislocation is understandable. The release of four musty pages drafted by a Boulder grand jury in 1999, accusing John and Patsy Ramsey of criminal conduct in the 1996 death of their daughter JonBenet, triggered a surge of fresh news stories and chatter about Colorado's most infamous unsolved murder. But the case has been out of the spotlight for so long, mired in a slough of compromised investigations, civil suits and nutty theories, that the pundits couldn't agree on the significance of this revelation.

On one hand, the release of the record simply confirms what relentless Ramsey reporter Charlie Brennan first reported last January in the Daily Camera: The grand jury had sought an indictment against the Ramseys for felony child abuse resulting in death, but District Attorney Alex Hunter refused to sign the paperwork, maintaining that his office didn't have sufficient evidence to prosecute JonBenet's parents.

The news left University of Colorado journalism professor and Ramsey apologist Michael Tracey, who's produced a series of shoddy documentaries defending the parents and serving up red-herring alternate suspects -- culminating in the 2006 arrest of bogus confessor John Mark Karr, a fiasco of epic dimensions -- scratching his head. "I have no idea what that means," Tracey told the Denver Post.

Ramsey attorney Lin Wood called the unsigned indictments a "historical footnote" with "absolutely zero" impact on the moribund murder investigation. He has a point; the statute of limitations on the charges has run its course, and it's not exactly news that the Ramseys were under Hunter's expansive "umbrella of suspicion" until he left office in 2001.

Yet if nothing else, the grand jury's inclination to indict John and Patsy Ramsey should bring under closer scrutiny the unprecedented "exoneration" of the parents offered by Hunter's successor, Mary Lacy.

Continue for more about the supposed exoneration of JonBenet Ramsey's parents. The DA's office certainly felt it didn't have enough unequivocal evidence to convict in 1999, but the indictments suggest that there was a critical threshold of forensic material -- not just speculations, suspicious behavior and probabilities of handwriting analysis, but actual stuff, arguably sufficient to merit a trial. So why was that recommendation ignored, then buried, then countermanded by Lacy's bizarre declaration in 2008, absolving the parents of any involvement in JonBenet's death?

Lacy's decision was based on new developments in what's known as "touch DNA," which allows investigators to recover DNA markers from just a few skin cells, rather than the much larger specimens required for DNA testing in the 1990s. Lacy contended that touch DNA results from JonBenet's underwear that didn't match any of the known suspects in the case bolstered the theory that the girl was killed by an intruder and effectively "cleared" family members of any involvement.

But the significance of touch DNA is all about context. Critics of the DA's exoneration have long argued that the weak trace samples of male DNA in the underwear could have come from a sneezing factory worker where the panties were made, but the true picture is even more confusing. As former Ramsey investigator (and debunker of the intruder scenario) A. James Kolar points out in his book Foreign Faction, the touch DNA in the Ramsey case was not only badly degraded and possibly contaminated but incompatible -- what's under the fingernails doesn't match what's in the panties or the garrote or the wrist bindings. Were there five or six male intruders, or only one?

In effect, Lacy "cleared" the Ramseys based on the absence of touch DNA from them -- a detail the media coverage of the topic tends to get wrong most of the time. That's a problem for the Patsy-Did-It crowd, yet also suspicious in its own right. Since Patsy recalled changing JonBenet's clothes just hours before she died, one would expect a few skin cells to surface that didn't. Is that proof of innocence, or, as Kolar suggests, of mishandled evidence?

If the absence of microscopic amounts of DNA doesn't erase what the grand jury found, it doesn't make anyone guilty, either. But Lacy's eagerness to exonerate the Ramseys -- even before she became DA, she reportedly maintained "that the body language of John and Patsy Ramsey wasn't suggestive of deception" -- illustrates what's been wrong with this homicide investigation from the beginning. The Boulder cops were savaged for being too focused on the parents, but Lacy and other key players (RIP, Lou Smit) have displayed a predisposition to overlook them entirely.

Ramsey attorney Wood maintains that it's unfair to single out the indictments without seeing all the conflicting, often-ambiguous evidence the grand jury was asked to consider. All of those documents and testimony are unlikely to be released by the current Boulder district attorney, Stan Garnett, who's been more evenhanded and tight-lipped about the Ramsey matter than Lacy or Hunter.

For now the case remains in its own peculiar time warp, trapped under a heap of obfuscation and generally misleading declarations of innocence or guilt. But every once in a while, a flash of something dark and brutal and inexplicable, like all child murders, can be glimpsed through the rubble.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "JonBenet Ramsey evidence won't be shared unless case is filed, DA says."

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