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DNA points JonBenet case in new direction

DA says tests show unidentified man murdered child

Published July 10, 2008 at 12:05 a.m.

1996, Boulder, Colorado, United States: The murder that shocked America: On December 24, 1996, JonBenet Ramsey a child beauty queen was brutally murdered in her home in Boulder, Colorado. To this day the mystery surrounding  that murder remains unsolved.  Her parents John and Patsy Ramsey as well as her older brother Burke have at various times been considered  suspects in the case but to this day no charges have been filed against anyone and the mystery persists. A new District Attorney was appointed in 2001 in Boulder, Mary Keenan, and new forensic tests were conducted by the police department. A male DNA sample that was found on JonBenet's underwear was submitted at the end of 2003 to an FBI database and could clear John and Patsy Ramsey.

Photo by Randall Simons © Polaris

1996, Boulder, Colorado, United States: The murder that shocked America: On December 24, 1996, JonBenet Ramsey a child beauty queen was brutally murdered in her home in Boulder, Colorado. To this day the mystery surrounding that murder remains unsolved. Her parents John and Patsy Ramsey as well as her older brother Burke have at various times been considered suspects in the case but to this day no charges have been filed against anyone and the mystery persists. A new District Attorney was appointed in 2001 in Boulder, Mary Keenan, and new forensic tests were conducted by the police department. A male DNA sample that was found on JonBenet's underwear was submitted at the end of 2003 to an FBI database and could clear John and Patsy Ramsey.

Twelve years after JonBenet Ramsey's murder, science took a leap that provided new hope of finding her killer and led authorities to exonerate her family.

On Wednesday, Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy announced that a new method of collecting and analyzing DNA generated powerful forensic evidence that an unidentified man murdered 6- year-old JonBenet in her home on Christmas night 1996.

Lacy also gave JonBenet's father, John Ramsey, a written apology, expressing deep regret for contributing in any way to the public perception that someone in the Ramsey family had committed the crime.

"No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion, especially when public officials have not had sufficient evidence to initiate a trial in a court of law," Lacy's letter said.

John Ramsey, a software entrepreneur who now lives in Michigan, said Wednesday he is hopeful the killer will be found based on the DNA evidence.

"I think the people that are in charge of the investigation are focused on that, and that gives me a lot of comfort," he told 9News. He added: "Certainly we are grateful that they acknowledged that we, based on that, certainly could not have been involved."

Ramsey's attorney, Hal Haddon, said his client was "just quiet for a while," after Lacy handed him the apology.

"His view is that aside from the peace of mind it gives his family, the most important part of this whole process is that now there's conclusive evidence in the DNA database, and as they expand the number of people put in it, they'll get a hit. That's what drives him."

John Ramsey, and his wife, Patsy, were considered prime suspects after JonBenet's body was found in the basement of their Boulder home on Dec. 26, 1996.

Target of jokes

The family became the butt of late-night television jokes, screaming headlines and talk show chatter. Patsy Ramsey, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006 at age 49, became a particular target of media and Internet speculation and suspicion that created an "ongoing living hell for the Ramsey family and their friends," Lacy said.

The couple maintained their innocence, and a 1999 grand jury returned no indictments after a 13- month investigation. Then-District Attorney Alex Hunter and police continued to say that the Ramseys remained under an "umbrella of suspicion."

"The world loved crucifying Patsy and John," said Patsy's sister, Pam Paugh. "Patsy didn't get to hear anyone apologize to her, and there were so many that were cruel. But she and John knew in their hearts what the truth was."

The latest evidence came from "touch DNA" extracted from skin cells shed when the unknown man touched the waist band of JonBenet's long johns. The Bode Technology Group, a forensic lab in Virginia, found that the "touch DNA" matched genetic material recovered in blood found in the child's underpants early in the investigation.

Earlier, there was speculation that the DNA on JonBenet's underwear could have been left by a garment worker, a theory discredited by the discovery of the same DNA left on her long johns.

"Now you've got in three more places exactly the same DNA on the clothing that demonstrate exactly what happened: her leggings and panties were pulled down, then pulled back up after she was violated," Haddon said. "It's enormously compelling evidence."

Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner, whose department has been widely criticized for the way it handled the case, said that DNA samples from 200 people have been compared with the mystery DNA without a match. Investigators hope to find a match in a growing national database with more than 5 million offenders' DNA profiles.

"We are hopeful that this new development will lead to the identification and successful prosecution of this child's killer," Beckner said in a statement.

Skepticism will continue

In her letter, Lacy said authorities will need more than a DNA match to solve the crime. But, she stressed the significance of the latest development.

"DNA is very often the most reliable forensic evidence we can hope to find, and we rely on it often to bring to justice those who have committed crimes," she wrote.

Lacy and Haddon acknowledged that despite the latest evidence, there will continue to be skeptics who insist that the family is involved.

"They can say all those things, but that doesn't address the scientific and conclusive evidence that exists," Haddon said. "Those people are just justifying their own slander and opportunism. They're wrong, they're losers, and to the extent they continue to try to justify what they've done, that demonstrates how little conscience they have."

Exonerated in civil suit

Lacy wasn't the first to officially exonerate the Ramseys. In 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Julie Carnes dismissed a civil lawsuit against the couple, saying there was no evidence they killed their daughter but ample evidence pointing to an intruder.

"My first thought was obviously I wish Patsy Ramsey was here with us to be able to at least share vindication of her family," said L. Lin Wood, an Atlanta attorney who handled civil cases for the Ramseys. "There are many people in this country, if not around the world, that also owe John and Patsy Ramsey and Burke Ramsey an apology."

Paugh said that the faith her sister and brother-in-law shared made it possible for them to continue their lives after JonBenet's death.

"Patsy died knowing she absolutely did nothing to her child but give her life and give her love," she said. "I'm glad the world now knows what we always knew. It's just 12 years too late."

ryckmanl@RockyMountainNews.com The Associated Press contributed to this report

Highlights from Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy's statement:

* On Dec. 25-26, 1996, JonBenet Ramsey was murdered in the home where she lived with her mother, father and brother. Despite a long and intensive investigation, the death of JonBenet remains unsolved.

* The (JonBenet Ramsey) murder has received unprecedented publicity and has been shrouded in controversy. That publicity has led to many theories over the years in which suspicion has focused on one family member or another. However, there has been at least one persistent stumbling block to the possibility of prosecuting any Ramsey family members for the death of JonBenet - DNA.

* As part of its investigation of the JonBenet Ramsey homicide, the Boulder police identified genetic material with apparent evidentiary value. Over time, the police continued to investigate DNA, including taking advantage of advances in the science and methodology. One of the results of their efforts was that they identified genetic material and a DNA profile from drops of JonBenet's blood located in the crotch of the underwear she was wearing at the time her body was discovered. That genetic profile belongs to a male and does not belong to anyone in the Ramsey family.

* On March 24, 2008, (new DNA technology at The Bode Technology Group Inc., of 1Lorton Va.) informed us that they had recovered and identified genetic material from both sides of the waist area of the long johns. The unknown male profile previously identified from the inside crotch area of the underwear matched the DNA recovered from the long johns at Bode.

* The unexplained third-party DNA on the clothing of the victim is very significant and powerful evidence. It is very unlikely that there would be an innocent explanation for DNA found at three different locations on two separate items of clothing worn by the victim at the time of her murder. This is particularly true in this case because the matching DNA profiles were found on genetic material from inside the crotch of the victim's underwear and near the waist on both sides of her long johns, and because concerted efforts that might identify a source, and perhaps an innocent explanation, were unsuccessful.

* It is therefore the position of the Boulder District Attorney's Office that this profile belongs to the perpetrator of the homicide.

* The Boulder District Attorney's Office does not consider any member of the Ramsey family, including John, Patsy or Burke Ramsey, as suspects in this case. We make this announcement now because we have recently obtained this new scientific evidence that adds significantly to the exculpatory value of the previous scientific evidence. We do so with full appreciation for the other evidence in this case.

* Local, national and even international publicity has focused on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Many members of the public came to believe that one or more of the Ramseys, including her mother or her father, or even her brother, were responsible for this brutal homicide. Those suspicions were not based on evidence that had been tested in court; rather, they were based on evidence reported by the media.

* The suspicions about the Ramseys in this case created an ongoing living hell for the Ramsey family and their friends, which added to their suffering from the unexplained and devastating loss of JonBenet.

* To the extent that this office has added to the distress suffered by the Ramsey family at any time or to any degree, I offer my deepest apology.

Ramsey case timeline

1996

Dec. 26: Patsy Ramsey calls police at 5:52 a.m. to say she had found a ransom note demanding $118,000 for the return of her 6-year-old daughter, JonBenet. Seven hours later, JonBenet's body is found in the basement of the family home by her father, John Ramsey.

Dec. 31: Ramsey family hires attorney, publicist and investigators as suspicion focuses on them.

1997

April 30: Detectives have first formal interview with John and Patsy Ramsey.

May 1: John and Patsy Ramsey meet with a hand-picked panel of reporters from seven media outlets for about 30 minutes. They insist they didn't murder their daughter and vow to find her killer.

Aug. 14: The autopsy report is unsealed by the Boulder County coroner.

Sept. 3: The full text of the ransom note is published for the first time.

Oct. 10: Boulder Police Chief Tom Koby removes John Eller as lead detective on the case and puts Cmdr. Mark Beckner in charge.

Dec. 20: Beckner says John and Patsy Ramsey are under an "umbrella of suspicion."

1998

June 23-25: The Ramseys are questioned again by police, their first interviews in more than a year. JonBenet's brother Burke, 9 at the time of her death, is interviewed for six hours.

Sept. 15: Grand jury convenes to investigate.

Sept. 28: Veteran investigator Lou Smit, hired by the Boulder DA as a special investigator, resigns. His letter, which states his belief in the Ramseys' innocence, is published in Newsweek.

1999

Oct. 13: Grand jury concludes its work and District Attorney Alex Hunter says no indictments will be issued, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.

2000

April 10: Time magazine reports that Boulder detectives bugged JonBenet's grave in hopes of getting the killer's confession.

2002

Dec. 20: Newly elected District Attorney Mary Keenan (now Mary Lacy) takes over the investigation from Boulder police and promises a fresh look at the case.

2003

March 31: A federal judge in Atlanta concludes that the weight of the evidence is more consistent with the intruder theory than with the theory that Patsy Ramsey killed JonBenet. Lacy later issues a statement agreeing with the judge.

2004

June 4: The Ramseys' attorney says DNA found in JonBenet's underwear did not match any samples in an FBI database of convicted violent offenders.

2006

June 24: Patsy Ramsey dies at age 49 following a long battle with ovarian cancer.

Aug. 16: John Mark Karr, a suspect in JonBenet's slaying, is arrested in Thailand.

Aug. 28: Lacy drops case against Karr after DNA tests don't match.

2008

July 9: New DNA evidence from tests on JonBenet's clothing doesn't match any of the Ramseys.

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