Doll Parts: For JonBenet, The Pageant Isn't Over

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

The case against John Mark Karr was dropped for lack of evidence, his attorneys said today. This charade will almost surely repeat itself, however, since there are so many parties interested in finding - or becoming - new suspects in the most famous child murder since Lindbergh's. It's a safe bet that everyone, including the victim herself, will be back on their marks again soon.

JonBenet's eyes haunt, and so does her story: the forced pageant performances, her precocious mock sexuality, even the lie that she was a natural platinum blonde. That's a secret she carried for a third of her 6-year-old life. ("You're not supposed to tell that!" she said to her nanny.) Seeing brief glimpses of her on TV the last few days, Courtney Love's lyrics came to mind: "I am doll eyes, doll mouth, doll legs ..."

The mystery of JonBenet Ramsey's death remains, and so do the people whose needs and desires keep it alive. Study the players and motives and it begins to look like a giant web spun by several spiders at once. The family, the journalism professor, politicians, the district attorney, the news media, even the unstable characters ready to win fame through false confession - all are connected by slender but resilient threads of self-interest.

Whether it's self-exoneration, self-promotion, self-incrimination, or a DA attempting to remove the taint of what one expert called "prosecutorial malfeasance," it seems that everyone had someone to gain by the arrest of a new suspect. At the top of the list stands the US media, hungrier than ever for juicy details on this, the best of all the "white victim" cases.

There are thousands of tragic child murders, but this victim - rich, high society, artificially glamorized and impossibly young - lived and died in media heaven. JonBenet's tragic story was made to draw viewers. "Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do," Courtney sings.

At the center of the web are John and (the now deceased) Patsy Ramsey, parents of the dead child. After millions of dollars and years of effort on their part, including private investigators and P.R. campaigns, the uncomfortable fact remains that there are no meaningful suspects except them. The widely-publicized evidence that we've been told exonerates them - including the now-famous "DNA samples" - becomes less plausible the more carefully it's examined.

It's impossible to prove or disprove guilt at a distance, of course. But it is possible to review the striking errors made initially by police investigators on the crime scene, and the far more egregious mishandling of the case by the district attorney, who showed the Ramseys and their team unprecedented favoritism.

Also in the picture is Michael Tracey, the journalism professor who has made a career out of the JonBenet case. He grew close to the Ramseys while spinning theories that would support the "intruder" idea and therefore exonerate the couple. Tracey is, of course, the man whose lengthy correspondence with Karr - hundreds of emails over several years - led to Karr's arrest. That arrest conveniently came the same month that Tracey, who has fingered innocent men before, announced he had completed a new book on the case.

There are also the swarms of emotionally unstable people who are always drawn to confess to famous crimes. Police received hundreds of confessions in the Lindbergh case, and so many people confessed to being the Boston Strangler that a black comedy was eventually made about it. ("No Way to Treat a Lady, " which probably wouldn't have been made in today's era of political correctness, includes a scene in which midget actor Michael Dunn tells detectives: "I did it. I strangled her with my bare hands.")

Both Tracey and the Ramseys have leaned heavily on the investigative work of Lou Smit, an ex-detective who claims that the Ramseys could not have committed the crime because they were "good Christians." Smit has dedicated himself to proving their innocence, a crusade that has also provided enormous publicity for himself and his private detective agency.

One of the many problems with Smit's hypothesis is the fact that the murder, which appears staged, was initially made to look like it was both a crime of sexual passion and an attempted kidnapping - something so unusual (if not completely unheard-of) that it overwhelmingly suggests deception.

That so-called exculpatory DNA evidence was so badly mishandled and contained such a tiny amount of physical matter that independent researchers have concluded that it most likely got into JonBenet's panties at the time of their manufacture. The other possibility experts mention is that the DNA got into the evidence during police handling. At least one account states that the DNA was personally conveyed to the laboratory by Lou Smit himself, which raises other questions about its reliability.

One of Prof. Tracey's films relied heavily on interviews with two people described only as "investigators." The two men are actually volunteers acting on behalf of the Ramseys, and amateur sleuths located the website of the agency they share with ... Lou Smit!

A. L. Bardach's 1997 piece for Vanity Fair remains the definitive overview of the case. Careful reading of this piece, together with some follow-up on the DNA evidence, provides a strong foundation for putting the case in context.

One of the Ramseys' first moves was to engage the law firm run by Hal Haddon, a powerful Democratic power broker who counted among his allies Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter. Bardach's piece documents the extent to which Hunter's favoritism compromised the investigation. In an extraordinary move, the active police files were even shared with the Ramseys' defense team during the investigation. Observers believe Haddon pressured Hunter not to indict the Ramseys, despite that fact that the police were reportedly prepared to arrest them six months after the murder.

Hunter's perspective on the Ramseys was unusual for a DA investigating a crime, as evidenced by his conversation with Bardach:

"No question about it. They lawyered up early on," he said. "Normally it is true, such victims throw themselves at the police and district attorney, offering and begging for information. The fact that they do not cooperate is most compelling, but it is not really evidence." Hunter asked me (writes Bardach) if I knew that Patsy Ramsey was a college graduate and had talent as a painter. He passed on the information that "she ran the science fair" at her son's school ... "She was fused with JonBenet," said Hunter. "It was more than mere love." ... Toward the end of our talk, he said, "These are not bad people," then added, "Of course, we know that good people can do bad things." (emphases mine)

While ambivalent, probably by intent, his sounds like a man who made up his mind early on - "good people," devoted parents, fine citizens. Hunter doesn't mention other, more troubling facts about the couple: Ramsey leading investigators immediately to a small broken window; the staged appearance of JonBenet's body; Ramsey's strange lack of affect; their immediate hiring of a public-relations expert; the report that Ramsey had instructed his pilot to fly him out of town immediately after the body was discovered, until a police officer objected; and so on.

The "ransom note" is another puzzle Hunter doesn't discuss. Handwriting experts could not make a definitive finding, but looked at dozens of writing samples and found it resembled Patsy Ramsey's. It's written as if composed by terrorists, and demands exactly the same amount of money ($118,000) John Ramsey had recently received as a bonus. Strikingly, it's oddly obsequious about Ramsey himself - a vain man who named his daughter after his own first and middle names (John Bennett).

Hunter's chosen investigator was personally close with several of the Ramseys' lawyers. This investigator brought in Lou Smit, who quickly concluded that the Ramseys' Christianity eliminated them as suspects. Soon this investigator's team was clashing with other investigators.

From Bardach again:

Haddon's team even persuaded Hofstrom and Hunter to give them "private viewings" of the original ransom notes and "the actual ligature and garrote." "The Ramseys' best defense attorneys are right inside Hunter's office," he mumbled bitterly.

The sharing of such information, says 25-year F.B.I. veteran Gregg McCrary, "is unprecedented and unprofessional and an obstruction of justice...It's possible you could make a case for prosecutorial malfeasance."

The current Boulder District Attorney, Mary Lacy, was part of Alex Hunter's team during the initial investigation of the crime. In an display of partiality that stunned some observers, she attended Patsy Ramsey's funeral. Lacy was criticized for making public comments about the behavior of University of Colorado students, with critics suggesting that she had "tried them in the press" rather than a courtroom.

She will now face the same criticisms about Karr. While she insisted in her press conference announcing Karr's arrest that the press should not prejudge him, she made that statement ... in a press conference. Having staked her reputation on the Ramseys' innocence, she must produce a suspect or else have that claim of innocence challenged.

Nothing fundamental about this case has changed with the announcement about Karr. The confluence of interests that produced this debacle - Ramsey, Tracey, Lacy, the media - will almost inevitably produce more such episodes.

JonBenet Ramsey was, by all evidence, an extension of her parents' ego. She told family friends she didn't like the pressure of the pageants (although some pageant mothers challenge that assessment.) She was already such a consummate performer, made up to a womanly perfection, that few outsiders knew she was a chronic bedwetter who reportedly had serious behavior problems. Her mother took her to the pediatrician thirty times in three years.

"Someday you will ache like I ache ... "

Somewhere in a darkened room a man watches as JonBenet sings and dances, endlessly repeating her performances for an audience of one. Michael Tracey, or another self-styled investigator, is cooking up a new theory. And the television cameras are always warm, always live, always ready to turn their bright glare on the half-broken strands of an old web - one that will be woven again, and again, and again.

As long as everyone acts in their own self-interest, the pageant will never end.