No Justice For Jonbenet

Michael Kane's work was nearly done. Late last February, the Boulder, Colo., prosecutor appointed to solve the languishing JonBenet Ramsey murder case appeared to be coming to the end of his witness list. According to numerous sources close to the case, Kane--in agreement with top Boulder police officials--had focused his case on JonBenet's parents, in the apparent belief that one or both of them had a hand in beating and strangling her on Christmas night in 1996. Despite the parents' vehement denials, legal experts widely believed that the 12 grand jurors would agree. When word leaked that prosecutors dismissed the jury's five alternate members over the winter, many people in Boulder took it as a sure sign that the proceedings were nearing an end--and that arrests were imminent.

And then, nothing happened. Instead of coming to a close, the grand jury dragged on for seven more months--until last week, when Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter announced that the grand jury investigation was over. "I and my prosecution task force believe we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant the filing of charges against anyone who has been investigated at this time," Hunter said. That leaves police and prosecutors unable to make an arrest after a three-year investigation. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens--inundated with phone calls and e-mail from angry citizens--says he may appoint a special prosecutor to take yet another crack at the case.

How did the grand jury come up empty? NEWSWEEK has learned that just as prosecutor Kane appeared to be near the end of his case, several witnesses with strong evidence pointing away from the parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, asked to be heard. Grand jury proceedings in Colorado are protected by strict secrecy laws, but several knowledgeable sources say that the new testimony forced the jurors to change direction--and may have led to the decision not to bring charges against the Ramseys.

That was only the latest twist in a tortuous case. In the fall of 1998, after nearly two years of searching for JonBenet's killer, the Boulder police were still far from closing the case and were under constant fire for sloppy police work in the hours and days after the body was discovered. Worse, infighting between the police and the D.A.'s office had damaged the case. Roy Romer, the governor at the time, pressured Boulder officials into accepting a grand jury probe--and Kane was picked as the best choice to lead the prosecution team. A former Denver prosecutor and a grand jury expert, Kane technically worked for Hunter, Boulder's D.A. But Kane had the power to call the shots.

The list of witnesses Kane called before the grand jury, legal observers publicly noted, made it apparent that the Ramseys were the focus of the investigation. Kane called Boulder detectives who had worked the case, including Linda Arndt, the first detective at the murder scene. Arndt, who resigned from the department, has gone on television repeatedly to publicize her suspicions of the Ramseys. Kane also called handwriting experts known to believe that Patsy Ramsey may have written the phony ransom note found in the house. Not everyone who first came before the grand jury shared the prosecutors' views. JonBenet's pediatrician, who had publicly denied that the girl had been physically or sexually abused, appeared, as did several of the Ramseys' friends. But sources close to the case say that in all, the testimony had the effect of pointing jurors to the parents.

As the prosecutors built their case, several other people with doubts about the Ramseys' guilt came forward and asked for the chance to testify. The most vocal was Lou Smit, a former Colorado Springs homicide detective who had worked the Ramsey case for 18 months but quit in protest when the grand jury was formed. His conclusion: an intruder had killed JonBenet.

Smit pointed to evidence--including a footprint from an unidentified Hi-Tec brand boot, found in the basement room where JonBenet's body was discovered, and a palm print near the basement door. Most curious was DNA found in JonBenet's underwear and under her fingernails, which has not been matched to anyone in the family--or anyone else. Had JonBenet gotten "a piece of her murderer," as one expert put it?

Despite the evidence--or, some critics allege, because of it--Kane rejected Smit's initial requests to appear before the grand jury. But after weeks of what Smit calls "serious and intense discussions back and forth," Smit got his day in court last March. Other critics of the case against the Ramseys were allowed to testify, among them John Douglas, a former FBI profiler hired by the Ramseys. Douglas had said publicly that the couple didn't fit the mold of killers.

Smit's testimony appears to have been a turning point in the proceedings. Soon after his appearance, NEWSWEEK has learned, grand jurors presented prosecutors with a list of questions they believed were critical to the investigation. One question: how to explain the DNA. The police were sent back to work. Over the summer months, law-enforcement agents took DNA samples from more people who might have had contact with JonBenet around the time of her death, including an out-of-town babysitter who had never been to Boulder. They found no matches.

The jurors also may have been swayed by emotional testimony from the Ramseys' surviving children. Burke, now 12, took the stand, as did John Andrew and Melinda--John Ramsey's adult children from a previous marriage. All have defended John and Patsy as good parents.

As the grand jury's Oct. 20 deadline approached, even the Ramseys' lawyers reportedly were hearing rumors on the legal grapevine that their clients would be taken into custody. Anticipating the worst, the Ramseys secretly flew to Boulder early last week where they awaited the verdict--and prepared to turn themselves in if the grand jury returned indictments against them.

But behind the scenes the case against the Ramseys had faltered. Last week Hunter and Kane--backed by eight career Colorado prosecutors who had consulted on the case--said only that the decision was "unanimous," fudging whether the grand jury had even voted on the matter.

The Ramseys have taken the decision as a small, if temporary, comfort, and are thinking about punishing the press for the unfair treatment they believe they have suffered. NEWSWEEK has learned that John and Patsy have retained Atlanta libel attorney L. Lin Wood, who represented Richard Jewell, the man wrongly blamed for the 1996 Olympics bombing. Sources close to the family say the Ramseys are going after the tabloid media that routinely feature wild rumors about them. The Ramseys want nothing short of justice--something their daughter's killer may never face.