Written by C.W.S.
The 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey is something that almost everyone is familiar with. Even those that were too young to truly grasp what had happened to the little girl would see her airbrushed glamor photo on the cover of tabloid magazines in line at the grocery store. The sensational nature of the case caught the nation’s attention as did the strange, and some say suspect, behavior of JonBenét’s parents, John and the late Patsy Ramsey. The couple has long been suspected in the murder by the media and the public, though no charges have ever been filed against them. In September, though, CBS premiered their docuseries The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, and pointed the finger at a new member of the Ramsey family: JonBenét’s then nine-year-old brother Burke.
Dr. Phil show lays groundwork
It is difficult to imagine that a nine-year-old boy could have anything to do with the murder of his younger sister. However, after Burke’s September interview on Dr. Phil, people seem to be having an easier time believing it. In his first interview ever, Burke Ramsey, the only other person besides his parents certainly present in the Ramsey house when JonBenét was murdered, appeared awkward and emotionless, smiling strangely as he recounted his experience 20 years ago.
Even before the interview premiered, Dr. Phil mentioned Burke’s behavior to the press: “People are going to be very interested in his demeanor, and they’re going to find his demeanor atypical. He might be talking about some pretty dark aspects of this story and smiling while he’s talking about that … my impression is he’s socially awkward.”
Burke, who has stayed away from the spotlight, is now 29-years-old and working remotely as a software engineer. Burke went on to tell the story of his mother waking him up in the night, hysterical and searching for JonBenét. Burke said that after she left the room he stayed in bed, stating: “I guess I kind of like to avoid conflict or, I don’t know, I guess I just felt safer there. I’m not the worried type. I guess part of me doesn’t want to know what’s going on.”
Burke spoke about the 20-years-worth of allegations against himself and his parents: “I know people think I did it; that my parents did it.” Burke has his own idea of who the killer is, telling Dr. Phil it was “probably some pedophile in the pageant audience.”
When asked why he was choosing to speak out now, Burke told Dr. Phil “…it’s the 20th anniversary and apparently still a lot of tension around it, I guess I kind of wanted to make it about remembering her and not just another news story.”
Dr. Phil also said of Burke’s decision: "His thinking was, 'If that's going to happen, I want to control the narrative.’”
CBS presents their theory
In their two part documentary series led by Retired FBI profiler Jim Clemente and former Scotland Yard criminal behavior expert Laura Richards, CBS laid down their controversial theory that nine-year-old Burke had accidentally killed his sister in a fit of rage. A panel of experts, including forensic scientists, FBI agents, pathologists, conversed together about such key pieces of evidence as the 911 call, the ransom note, the broken basement window, DNA found on JonBenet’s underwear, and the Ramsey’s television interviews, going as far as recreating at a new location the entire Ramsey household as it was the night of the crime.
The theory purported that after a Christmas dinner out, John had put a sleeping JonBenét into bed while Patsy prepared a snack of pineapple and tea for Burke. When Patsy awoke JonBenét to use the bathroom, she went downstairs where Burke was eating and stole a piece of his pineapple, which would explain the undigested piece that was found in her stomach. Burke, who the series claimed once hit JonBenét in the face with a golf club, grabbed a heavy flashlight and hit her over the head with its handle. All but one of the experts agreed that it was most likely not an intentional murder, but a fit of rage that was subsequently covered up by his parents, who did not want to lose both of their children.
In a bizarre attempt to prove that a young boy had the strength to cause the trauma to the skull that killed JonBenét, CBS had a ten-year-old boy hit a fake skull wearing a blonde wig to see if he could use the force needed to inflict similar injuries as JonBenét incurred, and was able to.
They also spoke with former Boulder County officers who claimed that District Attorney Alex Hunter had not wanted the Ramsey’s to be indicted, even though a grand jury had voted to indict them.
"The parents of the child, they have money," said former member of the Boulder County police department, Gretchen Smith. "The district attorney's office and some of administration did not want to hear that an affluent member of the community was guilty of a crime like this ... I don't think they wanted to solve this crime, and if they had to go down a different path that might not have been the truth, I think they were willing to do that."
Criticism of docuseries
In an article published after the premier of the docuseries, Amelia McDonell-Parry of Rolling Stone slammed CBS, saying, “A complete reinvestigation is what CBS's The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey promised, but the only thing they delivered was a witch hunt that culminated in naming Burke Ramsey, JonBenét's then nine-year-old brother, as her killer, and implicating John and Patsy Ramsey in a cover-up.”
The article also took issue with Dr. Henry Lee’s example of how easily touch DNA is transferred, accounting for the male DNA that was found on JonBenét’s underwear, but did not match anyone in the family. The claim that it could have simply been the DNA of the manufacturer was convincing, but McDonell-Parry had this to say: “What if the DNA suddenly matched a child molester who had never worked in a factory that manufactured little girls' underwear and had no reason to have ever come into contact with JonBenét, her new underwear or any of her other belongings that the DNA might have transferred from? Touch DNA alone is not a reason to convict, but it shouldn't be ignored as an investigatory lead.”
McDonell-Parry also criticized the subjective opinions of the “experts” about Burke’s demeanor during the interviews with a child psychologist 20 years ago, where he uttered the words in regards to JonBenét’s murder: “I'm basically just going on with my life, you know?"
She wonders the use of such a documentary series: “Even if this theory had been proven back in 1996, at age nine, Burke would have been too young to be legally prosecuted in Colorado, and he certainly couldn't be held responsible for any horrendous cover-up instigated by his parents. To unleash a witch hunt on him now without rock solid proof of guilt is a cruel ratings ploy.”
Burke sues CBS
In October of 2016, Burke filed a $150 million lawsuit against forensic pathologist Dr. Warner Spitz. “Defendant Spitz is a publicity seeker with a history of interjecting himself in high profile cases in an effort to make money, exaggerate his resume and claim a level of expertise that he does not possess or deserve,” the suit states. Dr. Spitz was the only expert on the CBS panel that claimed Burke could have killed JonBenét on purpose, not as an accident of rage.
CBS stated, simply: “CBS stands by the broadcast and will do so in court.”
Burke then filed a second lawsuit against CBS, production company Critical Content LLC, as well as the individuals who lent their expertise as part of the panel on The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey to “redress the permanent damage” to Burke’s “reputation resulting from defendants’ false accusation that he killed his sister, JonBenét Ramsey.” The suit claims that the production ignored evidence that cleared the Ramsey family, therefore purposefully damaging Burke’s reputation.
Delaware Law School Dean Rod Smolla gave his opinion of the lawsuit to PEOPLE magazine: “What will matter is what is revealed during the discovery process. Burke Ramsey has to prove the story is false, so the burden of proof is on him to show that he did not murder his sister, and that’s not impossible. He can assemble his evidence, and a jury could find it believable. He just has to show that CBS was negligent in asserting he was involved. He will have to demonstrate people who viewed that show came away with the impression that he was the one who did it.”
The suit states that the panel of experts was actually a hand crafted group that shared former Boulder Districts Attorney Investigator James Kolmar’s theory of Burke’s guilt was presented in his self-published book called “Foreign Faction.”
The suit also presents evidence to the contrary of the claims made in the documentary, including male DNA found under JonBenét’s fingernails, blood on her underwear, and the official cause of death being strangulation from the garrote.
It is unclear when and how the suit will be settled.
Most likely, we will never know what really happened to JonBenét Ramsey. Many claim that if Burke is responsible, the public has a right to know the truth, and others claim that implicating a man who would have been nine at the time of the murder is useless and harmful. Whether Burke will be granted compensation for the claims made by CBS remains to be seen, but it appears he is ready to fight to clear his name.