Frame Game

Who Killed JonBenet? 

JonBenet Ramsey is back. Last fall, after three years of investigation, a Colorado grand jury declined to indict anyone for the murder of the 6-year-old beauty pageant starlet. Now her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, have launched a media blitz to promote their book about the case, The Death of Innocence. The Ramseys argue that an intruder killed JonBenet and that the cops have tried to frame them instead of looking for the real killer. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens complains that the Ramseys are trying “to remove the focus on them as suspects” by faulting the police and “pointing a finger to some killer.” Of course they are. There’s no other way to clear their names.

The Ramseys could spend the rest of their lives gathering, sifting, and spinning evidence to substantiate their innocence. It would do them little good. In the arena of public opinion, there is no presumption of innocence. There is only a presumption that the most likely culprit is guilty. If your daughter is murdered in your home while you’re there, and if the police say they have no other suspects, you’re presumed guilty. You’ll never escape that presumption by refuting the case against you. The only way out is to make a case against somebody else—and to convince the public that the police, not you, are responsible for failing to prove it.

In politics, this principle is well understood: When you’re explaining, you’re losing. George W. Bush could spend the next eight months rebutting accusations that he has sent wrongly convicted people to their deaths or that he has invited rich people to stay overnight in the Texas governor’s mansion because they gave money to his campaigns. These rebuttals wouldn’t help Bush. They would help Al Gore, because most people would get lost in the rebuttals and would come away with the vague impression that Bush must be guilty of something. The only way for Bush to gain votes is to stop talking about the accusations against him and start throwing accusations at Gore.

This is the problem with the Ramseys’ media tour. They’ve been forced to spend most of their time rebutting the evidence against them. They do a pretty good job of it. After all, the grand jury didn’t indict them, and a veteran detective, Lou Smit, quit the case in 1998, deeming the evidence inadequate. “I want people to keep an open mind,” Smit told the Rocky Mountain News last week. “All I want with the Ramseys is to put a question mark behind their name, instead of this exclamation point that everybody’s been trying to put there.” Good luck. In a celebrity murder case, people have no patience for question marks. They want answers. And until they get answers, they want theories. Theory 1 is that the Ramseys did it. As long as Barbara Walters and Katie Couric are talking about that theory, the Ramseys are losing. The Ramseys understand that they have to develop a second theory. “Our objective is to find the killer,” John Ramsey told Newsweek. “That’s the only way we will prove our innocence.”

The conventional wisdom about the Ramseys’ PR blitz is that they’re not saying anything new. That view is factually correct but strategically wrong. The difference is that this time, the Ramseys are on the attack. They’ve developed a “profile” of the killer—a 25- to 35-year-old pedophilic ex-convict with a stun gun and a fetish for autoerotic asphyxiation—and they’re floating several names, including their former housekeeper and a disgruntled ex-business associate.

Why haven’t we heard these names before? The Ramseys blame the cops. “The police looked at the situation, didn’t apply a lot of logic to it, and said, ‘Child murdered in the home, the book says the parents always did it,’ ” John Ramsey told Walters. Ramsey suggested to Newsweek that “the vast majority of leads the police got were not investigated because the case concluded on Dec. 26th.” Patsy Ramsey added, “The Boulder police would like this to go away. They would like to just close the books. … But we are not going away. … We will be looking for the person that murdered our daughter.” In the Walters interview, John Ramsey sent a message to Gov. Owens: “You’ve spent three years investigating my family. What are you going to do to find the killer of my daughter?”

The media are beginning to take up the Ramseys’ questions. On Good Morning America, Walters replayed John Ramsey’s challenge to Owens. Other journalists are asking Owens, the district attorney, and the local police chief whether they’ve exaggerated the evidence against the Ramseys, why they haven’t met with the couple, why they haven’t accepted the Ramseys’ offers to take lie-detector tests, and why they tried to prevent the grand jury from hearing Detective Smit’s testimony that an intruder may have committed the crime. The police, the district attorney, and the governor have plenty of good answers to these questions. The difference is that now they’re being forced to give those answers.

So here’s Theory 2: A pedophile saw JonBenet on the beauty pageant circuit and tried to kidnap her. He got into the Ramseys’ house through the open window in the basement. He used a stun gun to disable her—leaving telltale marks in autopsy photographs—but she regained consciousness and tried to escape or cry out. He killed her, aborted his plan, and fled. The cops, having decided right away that the parents were guilty, ignored and squandered evidence that might have nailed the killer. Now they’re covering up their mistake by telling reporters that the Ramseys are “hiding behind their attorneys” and remain under the “umbrella of suspicion,” where it rains all the time. To get out from under that umbrella, the Ramseys don’t have to make you believe the pedophile theory. They just need to make you, Barbara Walters, and Bill Owens start talking about it.