A hauntingly beautiful child was dead, and her mother, who quickly fell under suspicion, went free. Across the nation, people were enraged that our legal system failed to hold a parent responsible for her little girl’s terrible death.
But the legal system got it right. Authorities now say they are convinced that Patricia “Patsy” Ramsey had nothing to do with the murder of her 6-year-old daughter JonBenét, whose body was found in the family’s Colorado home the day after Christmas in 1996.
Casey Anthony went into hiding this week when she was released from a Florida jail following her acquittal on murder charges in the death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee, in a case that had many echoes of the Ramsey affair. A jury in Orlando found that prosecutors had proved Anthony lied to police; she was convicted of four misdemeanor counts of making false statements and was released with credit for time served awaiting trial. But the jury found that prosecutors failed to prove that Anthony killed her daughter. Since the trial, there have been hundreds of death threats aimed at Anthony, or in some cases at people who simply look like her or have the same name.
There are many sorts of heinous crime, but one that resonates particularly strongly is a mother’s offenses against her children. Mothers will almost invariably sacrifice anything, including themselves, to protect their offspring. A mother who fails to report her toddler missing for a month, and who lies about what happened after the child disappeared, is clearly guilty of something – if only of being an incomprehensibly bad parent. For some people, it is a small step from finding someone guilty of bad parenting to concluding that the parent is guilty of something far worse.
This dynamic came into play in the Ramsey case. Patsy Ramsey entered her child in beauty pageants, putting her in dresses and makeup that some of us raising kids at the time considered disturbingly age-inappropriate. She found a ransom note on the morning of her child’s disappearance that some handwriting experts concluded she herself might have written. Later that Dec. 26, the child’s father emerged from the family’s basement carrying her body. Police were heavily criticized for not properly securing the crime scene.
Investigators developed a theory that Patsy Ramsey killed her daughter after becoming enraged that JonBenét had wet the bed. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens demanded in 1999 that the Ramsey family “quit hiding behind their attorneys.” A district attorney took the case to a grand jury, but the grand jury ended the inquiry by finding insufficient evidence to indict.
To considerable skepticism, the Ramseys always insisted that an intruder killed their daughter. In 2003 they finally received some forensic support. Investigators were able to isolate DNA from a mixed blood sample found on the little girl’s underwear. Some of the blood was JonBenét’s; some was from an unidentified, unrelated male.
Complete exoneration of the Ramseys did not come for another five years. Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer in 2006 at age 49, so she never saw the letter from Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy to John Ramsey declaring, in July 2008, that “we do not consider your immediate family including you, your wife, Patsy, and your son, Burke, to be under any suspicion in the commission of this crime.”
“I wish we could have done so before Mrs. Ramsey died,” Lacy added. “To the extent we may have contributed in any way to the public perception that you may have been involved in this crime, I am deeply sorry: No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion, especially when public officials have not had sufficient evidence to initiate a trial in a court of law.”
We don’t know what happened inside that Colorado grand jury because such proceedings are always secret. Prosecutors in 1999 spun the non-indictment as the culmination of their joint investigation with the grand jurors. That sounded, then and now, like malarkey to me. Prosecutors go to grand juries when they think they have evidence to support criminal charges. Since prosecutors are the only ones presenting any evidence, grand juries almost always agree with them. The fact that the Colorado panel refused was a powerful signal that whatever investigators thought had happened in the Ramsey home, they lacked substantial evidence to prove it.
That grand jury did prosecutors two favors. By declining to indict someone who was later cleared by forensic evidence, they avoided a potential miscarriage of justice. And by declining to indict in 1999, they avoided an acquittal at trial that would have prevented a successful prosecution if new evidence of guilt had emerged later.
An Orange County, Fla., grand jury was not so cautious or so helpful in the Anthony case. Prosecutors there won a first-degree murder indictment, carrying a potential death penalty, despite not knowing where the child was killed, or when, or how. They thought they knew by whom, but their main proof was Casey Anthony’s suspect behavior after her daughter went missing. The forensic evidence was both scant and scientifically unproven, the mode and manner of death not established. The prosecution’s hypothesis that Anthony killed her daughter because she no longer wanted to be burdened with motherhood seems to have had as much foundation as the long-ago theory that Patsy Ramsey killed JonBenét because her daughter had wet the bed.
The jury at Anthony’s trial did exactly what it was supposed to do. It put the burden on prosecutors to prove their suspicions beyond a reasonable doubt, which prosecutors could do only in connection with Casey Anthony’s lies. The jury then acquitted Anthony of the more serious charges.
Does this mean Casey Anthony did not kill her daughter, or that jurors believed the defense’s assertions that Caylee drowned accidentally, and that family members then panicked? No. But it means prosecutors will never again be able to charge the mother with her daughter’s death.
The Casey Anthony trial jury reminds us that what we think is not the same as what we know, while the Ramsey case should make us humble enough to realize that what we think we know is apt to be wrong or incomplete. People who want Casey Anthony to be ostracized, demonized or lynched think they know what happened to Caylee. They do not.
Legally, at least, Casey Anthony is innocent. Prosecutors should not have brought their case until and unless they had the evidence to sustain it. As another prosecutor wrote about that other notorious case, “No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion.” Having endured it, Casey Anthony should be left in peace to go on with her life.