The death of Jon Benet Ramsey is perhaps the most over-saturated mystery of a generation. Since the discovery of the 6-year-old’s body in her Boulder, Colorado home on December 2, 1996, the case has been extensively documented across the 24/7 media world and it is common knowledge that no one was ever charged with the crime. But what if that narrative is based on a false premise? A new court battle contends that the original grand jury wanted to see John and Patsy Ramsey charged in connection with their daughter’s death.
In September 1998, a grand jury was empaneled to investigate the Jon Benet Ramsey murder; the eight woman/four man group spent a year listening to testimony from police investigators, experts, the Ramsey family and their friends. More than a year later, on October 13, 1999, that grand jury was discharged. At that time, District Attorney for the 20th Judicial District (Boulder County) Alex Hunter announced his belief that there was not “sufficient evidence to warrant a filing of charges against anyone who has been investigated at this time.” The broad assumption was that the grand jury did not find cause to indict. The mystery has continued to baffle for more than a decade – despite thousands of unsubstantiated tips to police and the short-lived circus surrounding self-proclaimed suspect John Mark Karr.
Daily Camera reporter Charlie Brennan has been writing about the Jon Benet case since her body was found, and in January 2013, he reported a shocking twist: the grand jury had voted to indict John and Patsy Ramsey on a Class 2 felony: child abuse resulting in death. Presented with a grand jury indictment signed by the foreperson, DA Alex Hunter allegedly chose not to sign the indictment — the next step before presenting it in court to begin prosecution. Whatever his reasons, Hunter kept secret both the existence of the indictment and his rationale for declining to go forward.
Brennan, who has reported on the case for 17 years and considers himself a historian of the case, explained the genesis of his story in an email to Crime Library: “My continued work in reporting this story led me to the discovery that in fact, there had been an indictment of both John and Patsy Ramsey, which then-District Attorney Alex Hunter declined to prosecute.” Brennan came to this conclusions “based on interviews with multiple grand jurors, plus additional sources, both named and not named.”
But the story lacked one crucial element: a copy of the unsigned grand jury indictment. Without that Brennan concedes “many regard that story with the same degree of skepticism with which much Ramsey case reporting has long been viewed: ‘Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t.’”
So in March 2013, Brennan submitted a document request to the 20th Judicial District Attorney’s office In Boulder. That request was denied, citing State rules that keep grand jury proceedings are secret.
With the help of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an association of reporters and editors that aids members of the news media in First Amendment disputes, Brennan tried again. In June, Denver attorney Thomas Kelley submitted a second request on behalf of Brennan and the RCFP, arguing that even an unsigned indictment is “a record of official action… distinct from secret proceedings before the grand jury.” Furthermore Kelley cited the wide interest in the case and Hunter’s inaction demanded the release of the alleged indictment: “You must also agree that such decisions by a district attorney in Colorado are extremely important, and should be subject to the public scrutiny.”
Again Brennan’s request was denied by the District Attorney’s office. In its response the DA’s office refused to confirm whether a Ramsey grand jury indictment exists, and relied upon case law that says an indictment must be “signed by the foreman of the grand jury and prosecutor.” Since there was no indictment signed by a prosecutor in this case, the alleged indictment would be protected by grand jury secrecy rules.
In September, Brennan and RCFP filed suit against current District Attorney Stanley Garnett in Colorado District Court arguing for the release of the Ramsey grand jury indictment. And last week, the parties convenved in a Boulder County courtroom to argue whether grand jury secrecy still applies in this case – and whether such secrecy trumps the public’s right to know about a potential indictment so many years later. The hearing was covered by the Daily Camera. Perhaps tellingly, arguments were preceded by a closed-door session in which Judge Robert Lowenbach spoke with prosecutors about whether the document actually exists. A short while later the hearing began, seemingly announcing that the unsigned indictment is in possession of the District Attorney’s office.
Tom Kelly, arguing for the plaintiffs, said the conventional rationale for the protections afforded by grand jury secrecy no longer apply 14 years later – and that the indictment should be released because it was signed as an official action of the grand jury.
Sean Finn, custodian of records for the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office, argued that releasing the indictment might have an impact on future grand juries, and that while he agreed that the media have a meaningful role to play by reporting on the DA’s office, “There has to be a limitation.”
Judge Lowenbach indicated he would rule on the case this week. For Charlie Brennan, the release of the indictment would help fully document a “pivotal development” in the Jon Benet saga. “My hope is to remove any question or doubt about the conclusions reached by the grand jury and Hunter’s decision,” Brennan says. “And to give finality and certainty to this important chapter in the record of the Ramsey case.”
There was one other point of interest in the filings that went largely overlooked. In the District Attorney’s response to the second request for the indictment, Sean Finn wrote: “This office has spoken with Chief Beckner of the Boulder Police Department in order to determine whether, in the view of his Department, the release of documents like the ones you describe could hamper ongoing or future investigations. He believes there is no such risk.”
If an alleged indictment of Jon Benet’s parents would not hamper the investigation, it would imply that Boulder Police has virtually given up hope of solving the case. Crime Library reached out to Boulder Police Chief Mark R. Beckner to check the status. Beckner confirmed there are no new leads in the case, and that while his detectives have performed “minor tasks associated with the investigation” the Jon Benet case has gone cold.
Still, Chief Beckner has not given up hope of bringing Jon Benet’s killer (or killers) to justice. By e-mail, he made a distinction between a closed investigation and a cold case: “‘Closed’ and ‘cold’ are similar, but we don’t close unsolved homicides even though they are not being actively worked by investigators.”