by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in the New York Review of Books, June 24, 1999.
“JonBenét is our generation’s Lindbergh baby.”
—unidentified curator, Colorado Historical Society1
“The study of criminology has by no means made me a cynic; it has encouraged my admiration for the ingenuity of the race.”
—William Roughead, Chronicles of Murder
The profound and disturbing disequilibrium provoked by the commission of a crime demands a response, if the fabric of society is not to be rent. What we mean by revenge is private justice, committed when public justice is unavailable or untrustworthy, as terrorism is the response of seemingly desperate, despairing persons for whom the more orderly procedures of politics are unavailable or untrustworthy.
In the category of nonfiction known as “true crime,” most of the crimes investigated are murders, and most of the murders have been solved. Disequilibrium has been quelled by the knowledge that the criminal has been identified, apprehended, usually tried and convicted and imprisoned; in eras not too removed from ours, most murderers were summarily executed. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is the most primitive formula for justice and possibly the most psychologically satisfying, however inhumane and “uncivilized.” The Greeks recognized the power and authority of blood lust and the appetite for revenge; Athena doesn’t banish the Furies, but assimilates them into the new, more rational (yet perhaps in terms of punishment no less bloody) system of justice.
Accounts of true crime have always been enormously popular among readers. The subgenre would seem to appeal to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally. The most famous chronicler of true crime trials in English history is the amateur criminologist William Roughead, a Scots lawyer who between 1889 and 1949 attended every murder trial of significance held in the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, and wrote of them in essays published first in such journals as The Juridical Review and subsequently collected in best-selling books with such titles as Malice Domestic, The Evil That Men Do, What Is Your Verdict?, In Queer Street, Rogues Walk Here, Knave’s Looking Glass, Mainly Murder, Murder and More Murder, Nothing But Murder, and many more.2
Roughead, much admired by Henry James, wrote in a style that combined intelligence, witty skepticism, and a flair for old-fashioned storytelling and moralizing; his accounts of murder cases and trials have the advantage of being concise and pointed, like folk tales. “The Rattenbury Tragedy” begins,
Sometimes—just sometimes—cupid’s dart, departing from the romantically assigned rôle of the poet’s gentle image, is metamorphosed into an arrow, a barbed and lethal thing. More than half-a-century ago now, the target of one such bowstring’s cruel deceiver was a little white house nestling amid pines within soothing sound of the murmurous sea.
At times, Roughead displays a startling Borgesian flair, as in the opening of “Dr. William Smith of St. Fergus”:
Crime, like history, tends to repeat itself, and the genuine innovator may, quite unfairly, find himself designated imitator. Thus, in the St. Fergus affair of 1853, it is possible to see a curious foreshadowing of the Ardlamont mystery of 1893, which must not, however, be held to denigrate the achievement of Mr. Monson.
Roughead’s chronicles often end with blunt and unsentimental summaries, for this veteran of the court was a firm believer in capital punishment: “His crime earned him a total of $20 and a pair of severely blistered hands. It cost him—his neck.” And, “[Laurie] was removed by that capital sentence under which we all lie deferred and from which there is no reprieve.” And, “On June 12, 1906, Tucker was baptised. He was then executed.” Roughead, political conservative, genteel ironist, an unabashed connoisseur of the most brutal crimes, took for granted that justice was being meted out in such punishments. These were just-so stories for adults, cautionary tales with the unflagging folk moral An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Roughead’s influence was enormous, and since his time “true crime” has become a crowded, flourishing field, though few writers of distinction have been drawn to it. To write of true crime is to acknowledge one’s subject of more significance than one’s style in appropriating it, a difficult concession for the literary writer. Notable exceptions are Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, whose “nonfiction novels” In Cold Blood (1965) and The Executioner’s Song (1979) imaginatively, and in the view of some critics unconscionably, blur the conventional categories of fiction and nonfiction. Yet In Cold Blood has emerged as Capote’s strongest work of prose, the sole novel of his that has exerted an influence on other writers, and The Executioner’s Song, modeled upon Capote but going beyond Capote in its range and variety, may well be Mailer’s most enduring novel. Perhaps in the fact-obsessed late twentieth century, the most palatable fictions are those that aren’t really fictional but rather “facts” audaciously reinvented in the language of gifted writers. For what is “reality” except as it is presented through language? Both nonfiction novels are notable for the relative plainness and directness of their American-vernacular prose, and both are based upon crimes of a certain symbolic magnitude. The Executioner’s Song, especially, at over one thousand large pages might lay claim to being an exhaustive treatment of its subject.
Our apparent fascination with crime and its aftermath, including meticulously recorded trials like that of O.J. Simpson, mirror our collective anxiety about the possibility of the very definition of justice, let alone its realization. Where in the past the “solution” of a crime by police, the detection, identification, and arrest of a suspect, seemed to bring a natural closure to mystery, as in the entertaining fantasies of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, in our time these steps are but preliminary to the true drama, which will usually take place in a courtroom. Until a jury announces its verdict, and this verdict as much the result of bias, whim, ignorance, or a runaway contempt for the very process of legal proceedings as of reasoned and objective deliberation, there is no closure; there is no “justice”; actual guilt and innocence have become irrelevant, as the focus of dramatic attention shifts from the defendant/criminal onto his prosecutors and, especially if he’s rich and notorious, his defense attorneys.
Lawrence Schiller’s lengthy American Tragedy (1996) does not consider the probable or even possible guilt of Simpson in the vicious slashing murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ronald Goldman, focusing instead upon the “dream team” defensive strategy for countering the prosecution’s case; reading American Tragedy, one might be lulled into thinking that the murders were simply events that happened as in a fairy tale, or like weather, executed by no one “provable,” and thus by no one. Portrayed solely “through the eyes and ears of third parties,” Simpson floats curiously free of any moral condemnation. Simpson is a celebrity, he is celebrated. Simpson’s high worth is, simply, that he is. When he’s acquitted of his crimes by an apparently biased jury, no effort is made in American Tragedy to determine whether this verdict is “just”; only in passing does Schiller remark that one of the jurors was a former Black Panther, and that after the reading of the verdict by the jury foreman this black man gave a Black Power salute to Simpson. To speculate on what this might mean would be to assume that it means something, but Schiller won’t deal with “meaning.” And what has “meaning” to do with technicalities of law?
The notorious case of the murder of six-year-old child beauty-pageant winner JonBenét Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado, on the night of Christmas 1996, a case that Sherlock Holmes would have “solved” in a few seconds’ ratiocination (“No footprints in the snow around the house? No forced entry? A staged kidnapping, ransom note seemingly written by the mother?”), so ineptly investigated by police that no arrests have been made in over two years, is uniquely of our time: a murder mystery which many of the writers under review suggest could be solved is nonetheless stalled, perhaps sabotaged, by a police department and a district attorney’s office not only inexperienced at handling homicide cases3 but intimidated by the wealth of their primary suspects, the parents of the murdered child, and by their high-powered legal team. In his ironically titled Perfect Murder, Perfect Town Lawrence Schiller quotes the distinguished former Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi on the legal conundrum of the case, given the meager amount of hard evidence the Boulder city police department has been able to amass:
The strongest evidence against the Ramseys in this case is nothing that directly implicates them. [It is] the implausibility that anyone else committed [the murder]. But paradoxically, the strongest evidence…, by its very nature, is the weakest evidence against the Ramseys…. If we come to the conclusion that JonBenét was not murdered by an intruder, the inevitable question presents itself: which [parent] did it? A prosecutor can’t argue to a jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence is very clear here that either Mr. or Mrs. Ramsey committed this murder and the other one covered it up…” There is no case to take to the jury unless [the DA] could prove beyond reasonable doubt which one…did it…. Even if you could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Patsy Ramsey wrote the ransom note, that doesn’t mean she committed the murder.
Schiller summarizes a Denver district attorney’s position: “Until investigators could identify each parent’s individual actions, two suspects meant no suspects.” In other words, the law can shield a suspected murderer or murderers in certain circumstances.
In their joint effort Who Killed JonBenét Ramsey? the forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht and the journalist Charles Bosworth come to a similar conclusion. Given the impenetrable legal wall that has shielded the Ramseys, the case came to seem to the “inexperienced” DA Alex Hunter (in fact, a twenty-five-year veteran) unwinnable; and since in his professional vanity Hunter wanted to file only a case he was certain of winning, he vacillated for months, poisoning the working relations between his office and the Boulder homicide detectives, and further weakening the investigation.
From the first, the Ramseys’ wealth and prestige set them apart from ordinary police scrutiny; their alliance with well-known Boulder attorneys who were associates and friends of Alex Hunter’s further strengthened their position. As Wecht and Bosworth write, “The case would have been entirely different if the victim was a girl from a poor or even middle-class home.” The subtext of the JonBenét Ramsey case is class and privilege in America vis-à-vis “justice.” Carlton Smith in Death of a Little Princess concludes:
Where have the authorities gone wrong? The grim answers are in the evident lack of police training and experience that allowed so many errors on the critical first day; in the egos of the participants, which came to occupy more and more of the battle to control the investigation as the publicity intensified; and the worst: the clear fact that there are two kinds of police procedures in America, one for the rich and another for the poor…. The parents of any young child found dead under the same circumstances almost certainly would have been interrogated at once, in depth and separately, when the event was still horrific enough to have produced spontaneous answers. That did not happen in Boulder, and was why the investigation entered a state of seemingly interminable drift. It was a betrayal of our expectations about justice.
Given the perilous state of the American criminal justice system at the present time, one is moved to inquire, Whose expectations?
“Terror enlarges the object, as does joy.”
—William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
In an earlier era, a child victim of exceptional beauty and innocence like JonBenét Ramsey, brutally murdered in mysterious circumstances, would live on in folk tales and ballads; and might even miraculously name her murderer after death, like the seven-year-old schoolboy of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale singing with a slashed throat. In our media-saturated era, tabloid publications like the National Enquirer (which has published more than forty cover stories on the case) and the Globe (which featured pirated photographs from the autopsy on the dead child and of the crime scene), the Star, American Journal, and others replicate her image endlessly.
The six-year-old’s posthumous celebrity as a (possibly sexually molested) victim led to a People cover; mainstream publications like Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker have printed extensive articles on the case. As of March 1999, there were nearly 2,100 items about JonBenét Ramsey on the Web, many of these involving photographs of the child in her provocative beauty-pageant costumes. There were more than 300 websites devoted to the Ramsey case. In any supermarket or drugstore you are likely to see, smiling wistfully at you from a display of tabloids, JonBenét Ramsey, forever six years old and the most famous little girl of our time.
JonBenét Ramsey’s face in these reproductions is in fact a face grotesquely transformed by cosmetics. Imposed upon her childish innocence like a lurid mask is a look of sexual precocity. Her mouth has been darkened and enlarged, her eyes outlined in mascara, her eyebrows darkened and shaped. She may be wearing an abbreviated bodysuit with a suggestion of padding in the chest. She may be slinky-sexy in an off-the-shoulder flounced dress worn with sheer black stockings and shoes with heels. Her hair may be curled and furled in the bygone style of Farrah Fawcett, or upswept in the bygone style of Lana Turner. She may be wearing an enormous feathered hat with a black lace veil pulled down over her eyes. In TV clips, the child sings and dances with coquettish facial expressions and suggestive movements of her body. Except for her prepubescent figure, she resembles a midget woman.
Unlike those Victorian-era girls photographed in the romantic/erotic fantasy settings created by such adults as Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll, winsome little girls as fairies and nymphs, JonBenét Ramsey is bluntly presented as female merchandise. The dreamy bachelor Dodgson would have liked to photograph his subjects nude, but was forbidden by their mothers to do so. But a nude JonBenét Ramsey is unthinkable. The expensive, ludicrous costumes the child has been made to wear are as much a part of the display as the child herself. Perhaps, for the mother who so obsessively displayed her, a former Miss West Virginia, the costumes were more important than the child for the signals they sent of an exhibitionist, aggressive “femininity.” (One of JonBenét Ramsey’s pageant songs was “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” One of her routines was a mock striptease, the removal of a see-through skirt.)
Children’s beauty competitions are big business in America ($1 billion a year, involving more than 3,000 pageants and up to 100,000 contestants) and JonBenét was a winner. Among her titles were 1996 Little Miss Colorado, Colorado State All-Star Kids Cover Girl, America’s Royale Little Miss, Little Miss Charlevoix, and National Tiny Miss Beauty. A local Boulder artist provoked scandal in the community by reproducing one of JonBenét’s showgirl images in a mural above the caption “Daddy’s Little Hooker.”
In the luridly titled A Mother Gone Bad,4 by the psychiatrist Andrew G. Hodges, there are paired photographs of JonBenét Ramsey and her mother, Patsy Ramsey, that vividly suggest how the child was the mother’s fantasy. On one page we see JonBenét in a Vegas-style showgirl costume, dangling oversized earrings, spangled white satin cut high on her hips to emphasize her pelvis, white ostrich feathers flaring from her hips to showcase her exposed legs, a flotilla of enormous feathers fanning out from her head, and, on the facing page, here is the child’s mother, Patsy, circa 1977, in a similar white satin showgirl costume with bared thighs, ostrich feathers at hips and head, dangling oversized earrings, and high-heeled shoes. In another pairing of photographs, a heavily made-up, thick-waisted Patsy Ramsey is glamorously posed in a low-cut, strapless, bizarrely striped gown with fringes over her breasts while facing her is a much prettier JonBenét in a short-skirted costume made of the same stripes, frozen in a stylized coquettish pose.
Part of the power of JonBenét Ramsey as a symbolic presence in contemporary American consciousness is the paradox of what she, or her image, might mean. Is she Mommy’s little girl dolled up to attract the male gaze as Mommy no longer can? Is she a defiant image, provoking male desire even as, with her undeveloped, seemingly asexual body, she can have no intention of satisfying it? Or is she a mockery of female sexiness, all makeup and costumes? Is she purely for show, thus pure? Is the perversity of her image exclusively in the eye of the beholder? The made-up face will remind many women of their own childish experiments with Mommy’s makeup. (For which they were likely to be scolded, not encouraged.) There is the likelihood that JonBenét may remind women uncomfortably of their own adult faces, artfully “made up” to simulate fantasy images in others’ and their own eyes.
Theories abound regarding the killer or killers of JonBenét Ramsey. According to polls, many people believe that the child was sexually molested by her father (not raped, but penetrated with fingers protected by rubber gloves) and killed by either him or her mother, or both, and the murder made to appear a kidnapping, with a bogus ransom note written by Patsy Ramsey.5 JonBenét’s brother Burke has become a dark-horse candidate for the honor: maybe, out of jealousy of his sister’s celebrity, the nine-year-old killed her with a blow to the head, and the elder Ramseys staged a cover-up (garroting, ransom note, etc.). Few have been interested in the intruder theory, and the tabloids have snubbed the “foreign faction” theory.
So long as the facts are obscured, and no decisive legal action is taken, “justice” remains elusive and the phantom killers acquire a kind of mythic, demonic significance, with their victim JonBenét emblazoned in the tabloids. For there is a stubborn tenacity to folk culture that suggests not prurience, or not merely prurience, but a complicated set of responses having to do with identifying oneself (if one is a woman) with the female child victim, with outrage that a child’s murder should go unpunished, and with a wish that “justice” be done. Mass-market consciousness is loyal to a very few sentimental images: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, more recently Princess Di. But only JonBenét Ramsey may have been sexually molested on Christmas night in her own showcase house, struck so violently on the head that her skull was fractured, and strangled by one of the most elaborate and macabre of methods, garroting. Only JonBenét Ramsey was found dead with a red heart inked on her left palm, believed to be her own doodle or her killer’s signature.
Except that a child is dead and the lives of numerous other people badly shaken, or ruined, the JonBenét Ramsey case is a comedy of errors. David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino could not have devised a scenario so surreal and bleakly comic: the most inept crime of the century investigated by the most inept police department of the century. In titling his compendium of blunders and bad behavior Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, Lawrence Schiller suggests the unfortunate alliance between act and setting. So rare is violent crime in Boulder, where the average house is worth $300,000, still more rare a child’s murder disguised as a kidnapping, that police officers, summoned to the scene by a “distraught parent,” were wholly unprepared to deal with the situation professionally. “You have to keep in mind,” a former Boulder city councilman is quoted, “that this place isn’t real life. This is dreamland.”
What happened at the Ramseys’ that night, and why is the investigation so jinxed? Unless the killer or killers confess, which seems increasingly unlikely, the precise circumstances of the child’s death may never be known. According to the police report, sometime between midnight and 2 AM of December 26, 1996, a neighbor of the Ramseys heard a girl’s scream coming from their house, and another neighbor claimed to see lights and someone moving through the house at about that time; John and Patsy Ramsey would always claim that everyone was in bed sleeping, and they heard no scream. Neither neighbor telephoned police. (The Ramseys’ house, valued at $800,000, was in a prestigious residential neighborhood not far from the University of Boulder campus.)
Not until nearly 6 AM would Patsy Ramsey telephone police to report their six-year-old daughter missing and the alleged discovery of a ransom note threatening JonBenét’s life unless the sum of $118,000 was paid to the kidnappers, who identified themselves as “a group of individuals that represent a small foreign faction.” This ransom note, soon to become infamous, is in fact a lengthy letter written in a manic Hollywood-thriller mode, containing such warnings as, “If we catch you talking to a stray dog, she dies,” and such curiously digressive remarks, both familiar and contemptuous, as, “Don’t try to grow a brain John. You are not the only fat cat around so don’t think that killing will be difficult…. Use that good southern common sense of yours.” (John Ramsey, to whom the ransom note was solely addressed, wasn’t Southern, being born in Nebraska and raised in Michigan; but Patsy and her mother frequently teased him about being “Southern.”) The valediction and signature were yet more curious: “Victory! S.B.T.C.”
At two and a half pages, this alleged ransom note had clearly been written by someone with a good deal of time and no worry of being surprised while writing it; it would be described by an FBI profiler as “the War and Peace of ransom notes” and, in time, it would be identified by handwriting experts as having been written on a note pad belonging to Patsy Ramsey, in a hand similar to hers.6 Though police officers are trained to be skeptical, this improbable ransom note and the kidnapping ploy seemed genuine that morning to Boulder police.
Mistakes followed mistakes. Instead of sealing the house as a crime scene, and questioning the Ramseys separately, officers allowed them to call in their pastor and friends. Police made only a superficial search of the house, missing the child’s body in a basement wine cellar. (Such colossal blunders inspired the Boulder County sheriff’s officers to have T-shirts made up declaring “We’re The Other Guys.”) Detectives, though summoned immediately to the “kidnapping,” arrived two hours late; by this time people, mostly friends of the Ramseys, were milling through the house, possibly destroying evidence. A police officer would later describe Patsy Ramsey’s peculiar simulation of crying, but without tears; she held her fingers to her face and awkwardly peeked at him. There was no physical contact between the Ramseys, who barely spoke or looked at each other. Yet when detectives finally arrived, the string of errors continued. Instead of dealing with the Ramseys as primary suspects (law enforcement officers are supposed to know that crimes in the home are usually committed by family members, in a 12-to-1 ratio, and a crime against a child is often committed by the father), the lead detective, Linda Arndt, “bonded” with the Ramseys as victims.
Officers did note that there were no footprints in the snow at entry points around the house and no apparent evidence of forced entry, yet still the crime scene wasn’t sealed. Unbelievably, John Ramsey was allowed to leave the house unescorted for about an hour. (It would be speculated afterward that he’d disposed of incriminating evidence, such as a flashlight that had been seen on a kitchen counter but then disappeared.) During this time, the alleged kidnappers were supposed to be telephoning the Ramseys to arrange for picking up the $118,000. (This odd figure, a low sum to be demanding from millionaires, happened to have been the amount of John Ramsey’s 1996 bonus, and known to very few people.)
Yet more egregious errors were to come. When Ramsey returned home, he was encouraged by Arndt to search the house himself and went immediately to the cellar, where he “discovered” his daughter’s corpse in a small room so dark that others, glancing into it previously, had seen nothing. According to his own report he removed a blanket wrapped around the child’s body, tore off duct tape covering her mouth, and carried her upstairs to the living room. The child was clearly dead, her body stiffened in rigor mortis. Her hands were thrown back over her head and a garrote of white cord was wrapped tightly around her neck, furrowing into the flesh. (A garrote is a particularly cruel means of strangulation using a cord knotted to a stick that can be turned to tighten the cord by degrees. Relatively unknown in the United States, it had once been a public method of execution in the Philippines, where John Ramsey had been stationed at Subic Bay in the Navy.) JonBenét had also previously been struck a possibly fatal blow to the head so hard that it fractured her skull; at about the time of her death, a medical examiner would later report, she had been sexually abused.)7
In the living room, in front of numerous witnesses, John Ramsey lay his daughter’s body not on a sofa but on the floor; immediately, Patsy Ramsey in a paroxysm of grief or its simulation “collapsed” on top of the body and began rolling around hysterically on the floor. (Though seeming distraught, Patsy Ramsey had opened the door to police fully dressed and wearing makeup.) In this bizarre scene, the victim’s body as a source of trace evidence was contaminated by both her parents and crucial clues that might have been gathered by forensics specialists were irrevocably lost. The body, it would later be revealed, had also been wiped clean. Though it should have been clear by now that the “kidnapping” was staged, police officers still failed to control the scene; according to one source, Arndt herself would again move JonBenét’s body, and cover it with a blanket.
One thing the police did right that day was to refuse to allow John Ramsey to leave Boulder with his wife and son. Within thirty-five minutes of the “discovery” of JonBenét’s body, while the corpse was still lying on the living room floor, Ramsey was making plans with his private pilot to fly to Atlanta that evening. His excuse was that he had “something really important to attend to.”
Eighteen months later, at the time of the enfeebled police report, the Ramseys had long since departed Boulder for Atlanta, and their dealings with Boulder authorities have been primarily through their lawyers. John Ramsey, president of Access Graphics, a successful distributor of high-end computers, is a rich man. After four months of refusals, the Ramseys agreed to be interviewed by Boulder police: John Ramsey was interviewed by a retired detective so affably inept that he allowed the suspect to lead the questioning; Patsy Ramsey struck detectives as a tough, defiant woman capable of committing murder, which is very different from having hard evidence that she did commit murder.
Repeatedly, the Boulder police have been made to look like fools and have been ridiculed in the media: for instance, more than a year after the Ramseys were asked to turn over clothing they’d worn on the night of the murder, they finally acquiesced but provided more items than police anticipated, including a blouse of Patsy’s that appeared to be newly purchased. In the meantime, the Ramseys hired a PR team to arrange for media coverage favorable to their interests, including a CNN interview, an interview with Geraldo Rivera, and a BBC documentary. In a typical scenario, less than two weeks after the murder, the Ramseys’ press agent alerted the media to the fact that the Ramseys would be attending church in Boulder; when the media descended upon the church like vultures, the Ramseys were seen reacting like martyrs. A church member noted: “I was appalled. It looked so staged…. The church had been used…. I felt the church had fallen into the hands of a master manipulator.” The Ramseys arranged to be photographed with prominent church leaders, including a bishop.
At nearly every turn they seem to have outwitted their pursuers. Their intention has been, from their point of view, to broadcast their innocence; others have labeled it “poisoning” potential jurors. At a time when police in such cities as New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh are routinely accused of acting with excessive force, including gunning down innocent and unarmed citizens, it’s enlightening to learn from the Ramseys’ example how impotent police really are unless they have arrest warrants; unless, that is, suspects are well-to-do and can retain expert legal counsel.
Finally admitting defeat in March 1998, District Attorney Alex Hunter was forced to request a grand jury to investigate the case. At the time of this writing, the grand jury is still in session, moving with that glacial slowness typical of Boulder justice.
Apart from the inherent interest of this sensational case, none of the books under review is distinguished in any way to be compared with the concise yet morally instructive histories of William Roughead, nor with the work of such true-crime contemporaries as Ann Rule, Thomas H. Cook, Dominick Dunne, Flora Rheta Schreiber, James Ellroy, and Edna Buchanan. None is as ambitiously and carefully researched and, in its conclusions, original and provocative as the Toronto journalist Derek Finkle’s No Claim to Mercy, an investigation into a controversial Canadian kidnap-murder case.8
The most direct and workmanlike is Carlton Smith’s Death of a Little Princess, a pulp paperback in the St. Martin’s True Crime series (which includes such titles as Lisa, Hedda & Joel: The Steinberg Murder Case, and Lethal Lolita, the story of Amy Fisher and Joe Buttafuoco, “the electrifying case that inspired the blockbuster TV movie!”). In fact Smith’s examination of the case is reasoned and unsensationalized, mostly culled from published interviews, and concise in its argument that the Ramseys were most certainly involved in their daughter’s death, yet are unlikely to be arrested.
Who Killed JonBenét Ramsey?, by Cyril Wecht and Charles Bosworth, is basically an examination, in excruciating detail, of the coroner’s report on JonBenét Ramsey; when Oscar Wilde observed of biography that it lends to death a new horror, he had read no autopsy reports. The book is very awkwardly written, with the constant intrusion of “Wecht” into the text (“Wecht insisted…,” “Wecht was sure…,” “After Wecht eliminated the pedophile, the sexual predator, the revenge-driven kidnapper, and the small foreign faction, he was left with the two adults in the house on that night—John and Patsy”). Wecht’s spirited and repeated advocacy of a molester/killer guilty of, at most, voluntary manslaughter is a predominant, and puzzling, factor in his presentation of the case; the reader wonders if Dr. Wecht, Pittsburgh coroner and “world-renowned forensic pathologist of high-profile cases,” hopes to be hired as an expert witness for the defense against a murder charge.
The most idiosyncratic of the books is A Mother Gone Bad by the Birmingham, Alabama, psychiatrist Andrew G. Hodges, who has “participated for over twenty years in a breakthrough to the subliminal mind.” A Mother Gone Bad is an ingeniously belabored deconstruction of the ransom note (in Hodges’s view, unmistakably the hasty, manic work of Patsy Ramsey) that would have impressed Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote but will seem to most readers, should they stagger through 239 pages of prose so broken up into thought-bite nuggets that virtually every paragraph has a breathless headline (“Damaged Feminine Identity: A Downhill Slide,” “John’s Secret Misleading Proposal,” “From Fat Cats to a Stray Dog,” “Patsy Is Close to Confessing”), just a bit of overkill.
The indefatigable Hodges also psychoanalyzes Patsy Ramsey’s pathetic Christmas newsletter (“Had there been no birth of Christ, there would be no hope of eternal life, and hence, no hope of ever being with our loved ones again”). Hodges is more convincing in discussing JonBenét Ramsey’s “regressing” toilet training, a probable sign of the child’s stress as a beauty-pageant contestant. How at odds with the seeming precocity of JonBenét’s public performances and her tabloid image, this compulsive bed-wetting and self-soiling; enuresis (bed-wetting) isn’t uncommon in some six-year-olds, but encopresis (defecation) is uncommon, a symptom of “significant disturbance both within the child and within the family,” according to Hodges.
Though toilet-trained for years, JonBenét Ramsey often soiled her underwear and bedclothes; unusual in an intelligent child of six, she was still in the habit of calling out to adults to wipe her when she was on the toilet. As Schiller writes, “Anyone within shouting distance would do. Some adults, thinking she was old enough to do this herself, stopped answering her calls, and it resulted in soiled underpants.” (Burke, JonBenét’s brother, had suffered from encopresis several years before, to the point of smearing feces on bathroom walls; when Patsy Ramsey began grooming JonBenét for beauty pageants, and turned her concentration away from Burke, his condition improved.) Unsurprisingly, JonBenét had wet her underwear and her bed on Christmas night, not long before she was killed. A melancholy portrait emerges of a little girl emotionally abused long before her death, whose “control” over her own life was limited to the punishing release of her bowels at times and in places contrary to her parents’ wishes.
Lawrence Schiller was Norman Mailer’s assistant for The Executioner’s Song, providing Mailer with voluminous documents, recordings of court proceedings in the trial of Gary Gilmore and more than 15,000 pages of transcribed interviews. For American Tragedy, Schiller’s book on O.J. Simpson, he accumulated more than 23,000 pages of transcripts of interviews of more than two dozen people (not including, for some reason, Simpson himself). For Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, Schiller spent one and a half years, with at least one assistant, compiling newspaper reports and “sound bites” and recording 571 interviews yielding a staggering 25,000 pages of transcripts. Such a nondiscriminatory method is to old-fashioned research as the notorious mile-wide “harvesting” of tuna is to catching fish with manually operated fishermen’s nets; everything and anything is captured, wriggling or already dead or just plain debris. As if smothered by the very bulk of his catch, Schiller seems to have made only a minimal attempt to organize it or even to present it in coherent, thematic units. Chapters run on and on in a continuous log of the interminable, incompetent police investigation of more than two years, given spurious jolts by the splicing-in of news clippings, mainstream and tabloid, monologues by numberless people, press releases, memos, e-mail, and self-serving letters of resignation (one by a detective who favors the Ramseys as chief suspects, the other by a detective who favors the “intruder” theory).
Unlike the much shorter and much less costly paperback books, Perfect Murder doesn’t include photographs, a crucial omission in any true-crime book. None of the books reviewed includes an index, and an index is especially needed in the prolix Perfect Murder, where names, facts, theories both obscure and important are mixed together and scattered through more than six hundred dense pages with no organizational principle other than the crudely chronological. The immensely popular mystery-detective genre known as the police procedural (P.D. James, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, Ed McBain, Michael Connelly, et al.) focuses upon dramatically streamlined, successful police investigations, not muddles; if one must be submerged in muddle, six pages would do as well as six hundred. Perfect Murder may become a classic “how-not-to” handbook for small-town American police departments.
In its research methodology and lack of a discerning point of view, Perfect Murder resembles other electronically assembled books of our time, including those immense biographies that make of their subjects mountainous molehills. As in American Tragedy, no attempt is made at analysis, the lifeblood of true-crime writing. In responsible journalism, facts are not the point of a story but the mere building blocks of a story. Presented in emetic bulk, facts can be made to obscure the truth, as a coroner’s report presented in scientific detail to the layman, though factually true in every particular, obscures the truth if unanalyzed.
The crucial problem with Schiller’s book isn’t that it’s too long but rather that, for its length, it contains too little; it might have been, like The Executioner’s Song, twice as long, and read twice as swiftly, if the subject had been developed in depth. The best parts of the book are irrelevant to the JonBenét case and deal with the pitiless media invasion of idyllic Boulder by tabloid reporters; clearly Schiller admires these sleaze sharks, empowered to hire private investigators and to offer large sums of money for stories while their straight-arrow, mainstream colleagues are forbidden for ethical reasons. He quotes the Newsweek reporter who warns the beleaguered DA:
Here are some of the things good [sic] reporters learn to do over the years: A reporter finds out something about the person they’re interviewing, some personal thing, and pretends that has happened to them, too, to gain a simpatico relationship. Or the reporter gets into an intellectual discussion and the person lets down his guard and says things he doesn’t mean to say. Getting the person mad is another way to do it…. Confessing something to the person being interviewed makes the subject sympathetic to the reporter and more talkative. Reporters can be really nasty. Watch your ass!
If Boulder’s relative innocence helps to account for its amateurish police and prosecutors, it’s also a measure of its integrity:
In the Simpson case, everyone and anyone was lining up to sell their souls. In Boulder, we [tabloid reporters] all ran into a wall of silence from law enforcement, from prosecutors, city officials, neighbors, the Ramseys’ friends, the Ramseys’ enemies, businesses in every area. Money had nothing to do with it.
In time, however, as Boulder authorities began to feud among themselves, and everyone became demoralized, the DA began a media campaign of his own to restore the tarnished image of his office, with an aggressive press representative, press releases, and TV appearances. In an unconscionable violation of the integrity of his office, District Attorney Hunter even conspired with a tabloid reporter to dig up dirt (“I think if you look far enough you may find a sexual harassment charge somewhere”) on the commander of the Boulder city police detective division. (At this time, Hunter was in casual, frequent communication with one of the Ramseys’ defense attorneys, an old Boulder acquaintance.) Where a serious crime remains unsolved, and the perpetrators unnamed and unpunished, the inevitable reaction among even observers unconnected with the victim or victims is commingled frustration, anger, outrage.
After 385 pages of muddled speculation, Schiller discusses the FBI report on the crime in a matter of less than three pages of analysis devastating to the Ramseys:
…The Child’s Abduction and Serial Killer Unit was quite certain that JonBenét’s killer had never committed a crime before. The experts thought that the ransom note was written by someone intelligent but not criminally sophisticated…. In the note, the kidnappers called themselves “a small foreign faction.” That raised the question: foreign to whom?… Every item involved in the crime seemed to come from inside the house, including the pad, the pen, and the broken paintbrush (used in the garrote). The duct tape and the rope for the ligature had most likely been purchased by Patsy Ramsey…. Nothing seemed to have come from outside the house. There was no evidence that anyone had turned on the lights during the crime, trying to find their way around in an unfamiliar house….
To the FBI profilers, the time spent staging the crime scene and hiding the body pointed to a killer who had asked, “How do I explain this?” and had answered the question, “A stranger did it….”
After reviewing what was known about the points of entry to the house…the FBI [concluded] that there was no hard evidence to indicate that an intruder had entered the house that night.
If Schiller’s narrative has been underbrush through which the reader must drag himself, the news of the FBI report is a sudden, much-welcomed clearing. In addition, Schiller summarizes a lengthier report of the Boulder city police department also stating their reasons for believing that the Ramseys are the guilty parties, and this report, too, seems quite reasoned and convincing; yet, in his epilogue, with the air of a man who hasn’t read his own book very carefully, Schiller disclaims any special knowledge of his subject. The reader wonders if Perfect Murder, Perfect Townwas assembled by assistants and only cursorily reviewed by Schiller, for his conclusion is unexpected, and in this context bizarre:
…Since I was not present when JonBenét was killed, I have to question my right to offer an explanation, a best guess, or a likely scenario of the events of December 25-26, 1996. So, I find myself getting angry when I hear someone say, “Patsy did it because…,” or “John did it, you see…”
If having witnesses present at every murder were a prerequisite for prosecution, we would have very few prosecutions of murder, and a good many more murders than we already have. Can Schiller mean what he says? Or was this remark added in haste, on the advice of a lawyer, to block possible litigation by the Ramseys? If the presumption of innocence applies to all individuals who have not been indicted or tried for crimes of which they might be accused, are we obliged to become “angry” when, for instance, Adolf Hitler is said to have committed crimes against humanity, because, legally, he was never found guilty of these crimes? What is meant by a presumption of innocence before the law need not have anything to do with actual innocence, or guilt; the expectation of the true-crime writer is that through his own investigation and analysis he cuts through the obfuscations of the law in pursuit of a higher truth.
The noble epigraph to Perfect Murder stands as a rebuke to its author’s pose of disinterest:
Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced.
- Quoted in Crimes of the Century: From Leopold and Loeb to O.J. Simpson by Gilbert Geis and Leigh B. Bienen (Northeastern University Press, 1998), p. 4.
- See William Roughead’s Chronicles of Murder, edited by Richard Whittington-Egan (Moffat, Scotland: Lochar, 1991).
- Commander of the Boulder city police detective division John Eller designated the Ramseys an “influential family” on the first day of the investigation and ordered that they be treated as victims, not suspects. He would summarily dismiss more experienced FBI agents from the case and refused to call in Denver and Colorado state police. The extraordinary ransom note, which investigators subsequently identified as bogus, Eller described as a “typical” ransom note. The murder of JonBenét Ramsey was the sole homicide in Boulder in 1996. District Attorney Alex Hunter was known for his avoidance of trials; his office relied upon plea bargaining, which depends upon a defendant’s cooperation and confession.
- Patsy Ramsey once played on a women’s softball team called “Moms Gone Bad.”
- According to a Gallup poll taken in December 1997, 88 percent of those with an opinion about the murder said that it was some member of the family who did it, with three quarters of those citing one or both Ramseys.
- A linguistic specialist from Vassar determined, in a one-hundred-page report, that Patsy Ramsey had written the ransom note. Writing samples had been taken from sources not adequately covered in a police search warrant, however, so this evidence would not be admissible in court and would not be presented by District Attorney Alex Hunter to a grand jury.
- Experts disagree about the nature and extent of JonBenét’s “sexual abuse.” Some believe that the “damage to JonBenét’s hymen dated from an old injury”; others, that the injury “might have been part of the staging that took place after her death”; another, that “JonBenét’s vaginal injury dated to the time of her death.” In the most lurid scenario, the pathologist Cyril Wecht theorizes that JonBenét had been sexually abused over a period of several days at least, and that the garroting death was a consequence of a perverse sexual game played with her by an adult.
- Derek Finkle, No Claim to Mercy: Elizabeth Bain and Robert Baltovich, A Suburban Mystery (Viking, 1998) is a model of investigative journalism. Finkle examines a kidnap-murder case of 1990 in which an apparently innocent man was found guilty as a result of dubious police and prosecutorial tactics; and considers more generally the question of why Canadian juries have frequently convicted innocent men.
See also: My Sister, My Love
See also: JonBenét Ramsey, America’s Most Famous Little Girl