Patsy Ramsey died two years ago knowing she had nothing to do with the 1996 murder of her daughter, 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. Her sister blames the media for leading the public to believe otherwise.
On Wednesday, Boulder County (Colo.) District Attorney Mary Lacy released a letter sent to the Ramsey family acknowledging that new DNA testing techniques had proved conclusively that an unidentified male unrelated to the family strangled JonBenet in her home. Patsy Ramsey’s sister Pam Paugh told TODAY’s Matt Lauer on Thursday that her sister’s reputation had been destroyed, but not her character.
“I think more than a reputation, I’m concerned with character, and my sister died with her character fully intact,” Paugh said from her home in Roswell, Ga. “To that end, she is safe and no one can ever hurt her again.”
However, others — including some in law enforcement — don’t believe the new evidence completely clears the Ramseys.
No free pass
“Right now we don’t have the DNA of a killer. We have DNA that is unidentified and we don’t know how it got on this child’s underwear,” criminal profiler Clint Van Zandt told TODAY’s Natalie Morales in a separate interview. Noting that the chief of police in Boulder has refused to clear any suspects despite the new evidence, Van Zandt added, “It’s too quick to give anybody a free pass on this.”
MSNBC’s senior legal analyst, Susan Filan, interviewed with Van Zandt, agreed with his assessment that many involved in the investigation remain unconvinced. “There are still some people very, very close to the case, both in law enforcement and in the prosecution’s office, who do not think this ‘touch DNA’ evidence is the ultimate exoneration,” she told Morales.
A critical and objective review of everything that’s been written about the case doesn’t help. “There’s been so much written about the JonBenet Ramsey murder, and you can read everything there is to read and still come down 50-50,” she said.
But, Filan added, she knows Lacy personally and is convinced of the prosecutor’s integrity. “After this letter, you’d have to say, because I believe in Mary Lacy’s integrity and professional judgment, the family’s been cleared,” she said.
Other than the Ramseys, there has never been another suspect identified. Two years ago, an American living in Thailand, John Mark Karr, claimed that he was the murderer. Karr, who was labeled delusional by investigators, was flown back to the United States, where he underwent a DNA test that showed he had nothing to do with the death.
A ‘second tragedy’
Still, Paugh said, even if Lacy has cleared her sister and brother-in-law, the injustice of what happened to Patsy and John Ramsey remains. When JonBenet’s battered body was discovered in the basement of the family’s home on the day after Christmas 1996, Boulder investigators named the Ramseys as suspects, and the media quickly painted the parents as killers who were escaping justice. As years went by and the case remained unsolved, the story became a staple for the tabloids.
“That has been a second tragedy all and of its own,” Paugh said, referring to the media reports. “I think in addressing the court of public opinion, I also must first address the media, because there are those unscrupulous journalists out there who write their name down as a journalist, and yet they report innuendo as though it were fact, from unnamed sources, from supposed leaks close to the investigation. That’s not factual truth.”
Paugh said that the media frenzy was a second blow to the family. “Anyone who ever finds themselves in this situation, as my family has, will go through two tragedies: One the loss of your family member, and secondly, the total demise of the rest of your living family members because of all the persecution that’s laid upon you — unjustly so,” she said.
“We need to really rethink how we govern our journalists in this country,” Paugh added.
“Patsy knew the truth, and the truth of the matter was that she and John — neither one had anything to do with JonBenet’s death, nor did Burke,” said Paugh. “So Patsy never worried about that kind of issue.”
A public apology
Lacy, in her letter to the Ramseys, wrote: “To the extent that we may have contributed in any way to the public perception that you might have been involved in this crime, I am deeply sorry. No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion."
“My first thought when I read the letter was, ‘Wow. I didn’t realize district attorney’s offices did this sort of thing,’ ” Paugh told Lauer. “She was making a professional gesture that was very just toward Patsy and John in the way that they had been hounded all these 12 and a half years. I thank her greatly. It has really relieved a huge social burden off of our entire family.”
The new DNA was found in JonBenet’s panties and does not match any samples available to investigators. Paugh favors a national DNA database that would identify the killer.
Now, she said, the investigation has to go back to square one. “We must start anew, go back and re-read reports, re-interview, put the pieces together and find our killer,” she said. “That will give JonBenet justice.”
Van Zandt and Filan share Paugh’s opinion about the need for a national DNA database. Van Zandt observed that the federal government has on file tens of millions of fingerprints, but only a small fraction of that number of DNA samples.
“There needs to be some type of law in this country that anytime police can take your fingerprints, they should also be able to take a DNA cheek swab, put that in a file,” Van Zandt said. “We should be collecting that to help solve crimes like this.”