NEW: Police chief says "it was difficult to remain silent" about indictments for 14 years
NEW: There likely won't be a prosecution in the case, but police hold out hope, chief says
NEW: D.A.'s decision not to endorse grand jury vote is "exceptionally rare," analyst says
Previously sealed court documents released Friday show that a Colorado grand jury voted in 1999 to indict the parents of murdered 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey on charges of child abuse resulting in death and being accessories to a crime.
The district attorney decided that year, however, not to file charges against John and Patricia Ramsey, saying there was insufficient evidence. In 2008, a new district attorney said new DNA evidence cleared the parents and their son in the death.
A Colorado court ordered the release of the previously sealed court documents, putting new attention on the unsolved 1996 death of JonBenet Ramsey, a girl who won child beauty pageants and whose murder shocked the nation. The pages were sealed in 1999, after the grand jury in the case dispersed without charges being filed.
The court documents show how the grand jury sought to charge each parent with two identical counts.
The grand jury had alleged that Patricia Paugh Ramsey, who died from ovarian cancer in 2006, and husband John Bennett Ramsey “did … permit a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation which posed a threat of injury to the child’s life or health which resulted in the death of JonBenet Ramsey.”
The grand jury also had alleged that each parent “did … render assistance to a person, with intent to hinder, delay and prevent the discovery, detention, apprehension, prosecution, conviction and punishment of such person for the commission of a crime, knowing the person being assisted has committed and was suspected of the crime of murder in the first degree and child abuse resulting in death.”
The documents provide no further details on who that “person” was. The grand jury had accused the couple of committing the offenses “on or between December 25 and December 26, 1996.” JonBenet was found murdered in the basement of the family’s Boulder home the day after Christmas 1996.
Ever since their daughter’s murder, John Ramsey and his late wife maintained they had nothing to do with it.
Ramsey family wants all records opened
On Friday, an attorney for John Ramsey and his family urged the district attorney to publicly open “the entire grand jury record and not just 4 pages from an 18-month investigation that produced volumes of testimony and exhibits.”
The released indictments “are nonsensical,” said attorney L. Lin Wood. “They reveal nothing about the evidence reviewed by the grand jury and are clearly the result of a confused and compromised process. The Ramsey Family and the public are entitled to the benefit of the full and complete record, not just a historical footnote. Fairness dictates that result.”
Wood, in a statement, said the grand jury didn’t have what was later to be “the conclusive 2008 DNA testing that led to the unequivocal, public exoneration of the Ramsey Family by the Boulder District Attorney.”
The murder case is now considered “open,” but it’s a cold case that’s not being actively investigated, Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner said Friday. There are no new leads.
Boulder County District Attorney Stanley L. Garnett declined to issue an immediate statement Friday, but a spokeswoman said a statement will be published as as op-ed in Sunday’s Boulder Daily Camera newspaper.
“This case is a Boulder case and the district attorney answers to his constituency: the people of Boulder County,” spokeswoman Catherine Olguin said in a statement. “Also, the issues surrounding the case are complex and nuanced and do not readily lend themselves to a short sound bite.”
Beckner, in a statement, described Friday how “it was difficult to remain silent” about the voided indictments “for so many years.”
The killing may never be solved, and the chief referred to past police conflict with prior prosecutors who had “rejected” efforts to press charges in other cold cases, he said.
“Investigators at the time were disappointed in the then district attorney’s decision not to issue indictments,” Beckner said. “Cases are rarely perfect and often contain conflicting evidence. As a result, the opportunity to present the entire case to a jury may be lost forever.
“While we believe at this point it is unlikely there will ever be a prosecution, the Boulder Police Department still holds out some hope that one day the district attorney and the Boulder Police Department will be able to put together a case worthy of presenting to a jury,” Beckner said.
Legal analysts weigh in
One Denver legal analyst who has been following the case for 17 years said Friday’s revelation was “another extraordinary event in this extraordinary case.”
For a district attorney not to endorse a grand jury’s charge is “exceptionally rare,” said analyst Craig Silverman, who was chief deputy district attorney in Denver for 16 years.
Silverman described the past prosecutors’ decisions in the case as sometimes “bizarre” and “strange” and said “there was so much dissension” in the past between Boulder police and prosecutors.
“Why would a D.A. have a grand jury deliberate and vote if he is not going to pursue the charges that they bring back?” Silverman said. “And did the grand jury come up with those charges on their own? No way. One of the D.A.s had to provide that verbiage.”
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the indictments merely show that a majority of the grand jurors felt there was probable cause to charge the parents – a lower standard than proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“It doesn’t precisely say that the grand jury thought they killed JonBenet,” Toobin said. “It’s not precisely clear what they thought they did.”
The grand jury in 1999 didn’t have the DNA findings that emerged in 2008, Toobin said.
Winner of child pageants
As a little beauty queen, JonBenet pranced across the stage and into America’s heart 17 years ago. In heavy makeup, almost like a real-life doll, her images captivated the nation with every strut, every twirl, every wave.
But even with the fame that followed her death, the question of who killed her remains unanswered.
An analysis of the girl’s clothes showed the source of the DNA was not a family member, according to court documents.
Death of a beauty queen
On Christmas of 1996, JonBenet received a gift bike. The next day, her parents called police to report she had been kidnapped. The mother found a note demanding a ransom of $118,000 for her return.
But later that day, JonBenet was found dead in the family basement.
Questions and speculation reigned, and the country was riveted by the videotaped performances of JonBenet and her big blonde hair at child beauty pageants. Her parents lived under a cloud of suspicion. Were they involved? Was there an intruder in the house that night?
Years went by. The innocent little girl remained forever 6.
In October 1999, grand jurors assigned to the case went back home, sworn to silence. The eight women and four men had convened regularly for 13 months. They heard from dozens of witnesses, considered 30,000 pieces of evidence. All with one question in mind: Who killed JonBenet?
They had nothing to show for their efforts. Or so it seemed.
On Wednesday – 14 years after the grand jury dispersed – Judge J. Robert Lowenbach ordered the release of four pages of sealed documents, as requested by local journalists.
The indictment consists of two pages about the mother and two pages about the father. Only the documents signed by a foreman are being released, according to the judge’s order. But the foreman’s signature is removed from the documents.
In January, the Boulder Daily Camera, citing unidentified jurors and an assistant district attorney, said the grand jury voted to indict her parents on charges of child abuse resulting in death. The newspaper and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press then successfully sued for the documents’ release.
Lowenbach’s order Wednesday made reference to the grand jury’s report.
“It appears that the district attorney, presumably acting at the direction of the grand jury, prepared a series of possible charges regarding John Ramsey and Patricia Ramsey based on the fact that the child had died and that there was evidence that a sexual assault of the child occurred,” Lowenbach wrote.
But then-Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter said there was insufficient evidence to warrant filing charges. He did not sign the indictment, according to the Daily Camera. It had remained sealed until Friday.
The attorney for John Ramsey recently reasserted his client had no role in his daughter’s death.
“I have known for years that Boulder prosecutors did not file charges against John and Patsy Ramsey because the evidence to prosecute them did not exist,” Wood, the Atlanta lawyer for John Ramsey, said this year.
‘Killer on the loose’
Patsy Ramsey had always said her family was innocent.
“There’s a killer on the loose,” she said a few days after her daughter’s body was found. “I don’t know who it is. I don’t know if it’s a she or a he, but … there’s someone out there.”
In 2008, then-District Attorney Mary Lacy wrote a letter to John Ramsey, saying that new DNA evidence had cleared him, his wife and son. She formally apologized for the cloud of suspicion the Ramseys lived under for years.
Last week, another attorney for John Ramsey wrote to District Attorney Garnett, requesting the documents be kept secret.
“Public release of the allegations of an unprosecuted indictment only serves to further defame (John Ramsey) and his late wife,” wrote Harold Haddon.
Lowenbach denied the request. State law requires official actions by the grand jury to be released, the judge said.
The parents have always maintained that an intruder killed the little beauty queen.
In 2006, a breakthrough appeared imminent with the arrest of John Mark Karr in Bangkok, Thailand. The 41-year-old teacher repeatedly said he loved the little girl and was with her the night she died. He insisted her death was an accident.
But soon after his arrest and return to Colorado, prosecutors said DNA evidence proved he had nothing to do with her death. The district attorney decided not to charge him.
More years went by. Investigations revealed new details, and with that came more suspicions.
Investigators say they did not find any sign of forced entry into the family home in 1996. No footprints in the snow outside the home, either.
A paintbrush from her mother’s hobby kit was used to tighten the rope that choked JonBenet, according to investigators. And the alleged ransom letter came from a notepad inside the house and made reference to little-known details about the family’s past finances.
Though the Ramseys were never named as suspects, they were the focus of the grand jury, which first convened in September 1998.
Today, the investigation stands almost where it started – no arrests and no solid suspects.
The years have certainly stood still for the little girl who was named after father John Bennett Ramsey – but pronounced in a French style, “Zhawn-Ben-AY.”
To many, JonBenet is still the 6-year-old who paraded across television screens nationwide.
But she would have turned 23 this year.
CNN’s Greg Botelho, Steve Almasy, Ana Cabrera, Sara Weisfeldt and Michelle Richmond contributed to this report.