Thursday, August 17, 2006

Suspect arrested for 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey

I've been wrong about something for nearly a decade. I've believed for ten years that John Bennett Ramsey, and his wife, Patsy Ramsey, murdered their daughter, JonBenet, and managed to avoid prosecution mainly because they were rich (very rich-- at least at the time of the murder, it was reported that John Bennett Ramsey was a billionaire). Patsy Ramsey joined JonBenet when she died in June of ovarian cancer, still living under a cloud of suspicion. But today it turns out that a 41 year old former teacher, John Mark Karr, has been arrested in Thailand (where he was already in prison after being arrested for an unrelated sex crime-- which in Thailand almost certainly involves a child; I will put up a post next week sometime about child sexual exploitation but that would divert from the topic of this post.) I doubt if John Bennett Ramsey (a billionaire whose most recent headlines were made when he ran in Michigan as a Republican candidate and lost) ever reads liberal blogs but I will say it anyway: I was wrong, and I'm sorry for some of the things I've said and written over the past ten years.

Now, I've said before that justice is for sale in America-- in that the amount of money that you can pay, as well as celebrity status-- for your defense may have as much to do with whether you are ever found guilty or go to prison as the evidence.

And we've certainly seen evidence of that. In the trials of O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson, the defendants were able to hire very expensive legal representation, and together with the star power of their celebrity status, may (or may not) have gotten away with murder or child molestation. On the other end of the scale, in the large majority of cases involving convicted felons whose convictions are later overturned because it turns out that they did not commit the crime in the first place, the defendants have one thing in common-- they were represented by a public defenders office. That isn't to say that all public defenders are poor lawyers or are lazy-- I've known of some public defenders who were very dedicated to giving their clients the best defense they could-- but it is also true that those lawyers who are at the bottom of the barrel-- they passed the bar exam (maybe barely) but are consistent losers, just don't get hired by law offices or prosecutors, and often end up as public defenders. And public defenders are often overworked and have a low budget to work with. As just one example, DNA tests are often just too expensive for a public defender's budget to afford as a rule.

So, I believed quite bluntly that the Boulder, Colorado D.A. did not file an indictment against the Ramseys (who at the time were not only the prime, but in fact the only known suspects in the case) because they knew he could spend more on his defense than the entire budget of their office (remember this happened shortly after Los Angeles prosecutors got outgunned by O.J.'s 'dream team.')

The problem as it turns out was that the Ramseys were the only suspects in the case. Certainly there was plenty of reason to suspect them, but as we've seen in some cases in other places, police sometimes believe they 'have their man' and focus only on one suspect (generally a family member) pretty much to the exclusion of any other possibility. Often, they turn out to be right, as for example in the case of Scott Peterson. However, there are other cases when the 'fixation' by police agencies on a particular suspect results in a trial by press of that individual while the real culprit avoided suspicion (as it was for Richard Jewell). And clearly this case is in that second category.

So we have identified two problems with our system. Unequal justice based on one's ability to pay, and failure by investigators to investigate alternatives to their prime suspect instead of devoting 100% of their effort just to that one person.

And in John and Patsy Ramsey's case, those two flaws together have belatedly produced justice. The police wrongly focused on only one theory ten years ago, specifically that John or Patsy had murdered their daughter. Graphologists even claimed that the writing in a ransom note matched Patsy's handwriting (meaning that I may not trust a graphologist next time I hear one on TV). But then John Bennett Ramsey had an asset that the rest of us would not have had in the same set of circumstances-- the resources to fight it (so that, for example, the police could not even interview him or his wife until they gave the defense attorneys copies of the evidence they had collected to that point.)

Justice has now been served. It is now known that John Bennett Ramsey, whatever else he is, is not a murderer. His daughter was brutally ripped from him at a young and tender age, and his wife died much too young as well after they spent the last decade with a cloud hanging over their every move. There are some things that no amount of money is enough to compensate for. And John Mark Karr had ten more years to prey on kids around the world. In fact, he apparently posted information on the internet that led police to him, or he'd be out there still, with John Bennett Ramsey continuing to take the blame for the murder he committed while he molested, raped and perhaps killed more kids.

But let's not forget the thousands of others who have found themselves in a similar situtation, as suspects in crimes they did not commit, and who don't have the resources to fight it. In our quest for law and order, let's not forget that justice still must be just.

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