BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — A grand jury found enough evidence to indict the parents of JonBenet Ramsey for child abuse and accessory to first-degree murder in the 6-year-old’s death, newly unsealed documents revealed Friday, nearly a decade after DNA evidence cleared the couple.
But the 1999 documents shed no light on who was responsible for the child beauty queen’s death, and 14 years later, authorities are no closer to finding her killer.
The documents confirmed reports earlier this year that grand jurors had indeed recommended an indictment in the case, contrary to the long-held perception that the secret panel ended their work without deciding to charge anyone.
The grand jury met three years after JonBenet’s body was found bludgeoned and strangled in the basement of her family’s home in Boulder, the day after Christmas in 1996. Lurid details of the crime and striking video footage of the child in adult makeup and suggestive pageant costumes propelled the case into one of the highest-profile mysteries in the U.S., unleashing a series of true-crime books and TV specials.
Many tabloid headlines later, tests in 2008 on newly discovered DNA left behind by someone who touched JonBenet’s long underwear pointed to the involvement of an "unexplained third party" in her slaying, and not the Ramseys or their son, Burke.
The tests led Hunter’s successor, Mary Lacy, to clear the Ramseys, two years after Patsy Ramsey died of cancer. In a letter to John Ramsey, she called the couple "victims of this crime."
Finding a match in the nation’s growing DNA database could hold the best hope for someday solving the killing of JonBenet, who would now be 23. Her slaying is considered a cold case, open but not under active investigation.
One of John Ramsey’s attorneys, L. Lin Wood, said the documents released Friday are "nonsensical" and the grand jurors didn’t have the benefit of having the DNA results.
"They reveal nothing about the evidence reviewed by the grand jury and are clearly the result of a confused and compromised process," he said.
While the killer’s identity is still unknown, Wood said there’s no mystery about the Ramseys’ role.
"The Ramsey family is innocent," he said. "That part of the case, based on the DNA evidence, is a done deal."
Boulder police, who were criticized for their handling of the investigation, issued a statement saying the documents show the grand jury agreed with investigators that probable cause existed to file charges. However, the statement acknowledged that the evidence would have to meet a higher standard than probable cause for prosecutors to take the case to trial.
The current district attorney, Stan Garnett, declined to comment but will publish an op-ed piece on Sunday, given the complexity of the case, a spokeswoman said.
David Lane, a defense attorney not involved in the case, said prosecutors may have handed it over to grand jurors because problems in the investigation could have made it difficult to prosecute. But he said that could have backfired with a "runaway grand jury" that reached its own conclusions.
He said the indictments could have been an attempt to force the parents to turn against each other, which he said was unlikely because both were protected by laws that limit testimony of one spouse against another.
"Somebody killed JonBenet Ramsey," Lane said. "It sounds like they were accused of aiding and abetting each other, with the hope someone would crack and break. That didn’t happen, and prosecutors may have decided not to go forward."
Although the grand jury foreman signed the 1999 indictments, prosecutors decided not to bring charges.
Christina Habas, a retired judge who oversaw grand juries in Denver, said it’s at the discretion of the district attorney whether to file charges because prosecutors have to consider whether they can convince a trial jury of someone’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The indictments might have been a compromise among jurors who were divided on what counts should be approved, said Nancy Leong, an assistant law professor at the University of Denver. The release of only four of 18 charging pages, and the numbering of the charges, suggest other possible charges were passed over. The charge of accessory to a crime might have been an attempt to "meet in the middle," Leong said.
"And that would also explain why the prosecutor didn’t want to continue with the prosecution of the crime, because there might not have been enough evidence to prove the parents helped someone else cover up the crime," she said.
Whatever the motivation behind them, the documents add little or nothing to the public understanding of what happened to JonBenet, Leong said.
"We don’t know much more factually, if anything, than we did in 1996," she said.
The Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder reported earlier this year that the grand jury had issued indictments, and the documents were released in response to a lawsuit filed by its reporter, Charlie Brennan, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Associated Press writers Steven K. Paulson and Dan Elliott contributed to this report.