To Rest in Peace
The Ramseys, in a TKO.
You have to feel sorry for John and Patsy Ramsey. They were overmatched by forces outside of their control from the get-go. If the initial police investigation in 1996 into the murder of their daughter, JonBenet, had been competent, or even minimally professional, they might not have spent the last decade under an "umbrella of suspicion." If Patsy had been less viscerally creepy—instead of a pageant queen who seemed to be living vicariously through her tricked-out daughter—and if both parents' demeanors had been slightly more in keeping with what we expect from the grief-stricken middle class, the Ramseys might not have lost the national media at "hello." If only they'd recognized early on that they couldn't outsmart, outfox, or outmaneuver that media, they might have found some peace.
But they were relentless, and at almost every step the Ramseys took what looked to be wrong turns: lawyering up from the beginning and hastily adding personal investigators and publicists to their team. They probably should have cooperated with the police, submitted to the polygraphs, and stopped placing conditions on their interviews.
Every time it seemed they had an opportunity to turn off the klieg lights, they jumped back into the center ring: The endless cable news interviews. The book they wrote, The Death of Innocence, and their accompanying media campaign. Their string of angry smack-downs on national television. And then came all the lawsuits: a $25 million suit against The Star for stories linking JonBenet's death to her brother, Burke; $4 million libel suits against the New York Post and Time Warner, also for allegedly libeling Burke. A defamation lawsuit against Fox News. And then John Ramsey ran for elected office. He lost.
I have no idea how one copes with the brutal murder of a child, and perhaps no one way is better than any other. But it seemed that every chance the Ramseys had to minimize their public exposure, to recoup their public-image losses, and to fade quietly into the twilit world that O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, and Gary Condit call home, they would steal yet one more tabloid headline, always somehow larger than life. They kept trying to use the media to beat the media, and somehow it never worked.
Except, oddly enough, at the very end—when they finally had the puzzle piece they'd been missing all along. In June, Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer, and evidently before her death she'd been told that authorities were investigating a potential suspect. John Ramsey confirmed, upon the arrest of John Karr, that Patsy knew police "were working very diligently on it ... and that they had a suspect and that they were in the process of locating him."
How excruciating that must have been. With the chance to spill this news—and to clear Patsy Ramsey's name before she died—JonBenet's parents said nothing. They let the investigation go forward and allowed the suspect to be caught. Even though it meant—to quote Dr. Phil today—"that Patsy Ramsey, who just passed away, had to go to her grave without that closure, without an answer to these questions."
With all due respect to Dr. Phil, I don't think Patsy Ramsey needed the media's forgiveness or even its answers to go to her death with "closure." I think she was willing to die with a public cloud over her head rather than jeopardize this case. In the end, when it mattered most, she didn't need the media for anything.
I confess that I am not at all confident they've caught the right creep in John Karr. Those DNA tests will let us know soon. But, whatever they tell us, I score this round to the Ramseys. They finally figured out that you may not be able to beat cable news, but you can always turn it off.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Patsy Ramsey by Mario Tama/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.