Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cyril Wecht: Forensic Pathologist

JonBenet: From Impressions to Book

JonBenet Ramsey caught the world's attention as the 6-year-old beauty queen who was found murdered in her Boulder, Colorado home. There were plenty of blunders during this investigation that would be grist for the mills of those who loved debating criminal cases.

JonBenet Ramsey
JonBenet Ramsey

It was the day after Christmas in 1996, at 5:52 a.m., when JonBenet's mother, Patsy Ramsey, placed a 911 call to say that her daughter had been kidnapped. From the moment the police arrived, the crime scene was compromised. A ransom note, allegedly left by the kidnappers, was moved and photographed in the wrong place. Friends were allowed to enter the home and roam about. Several people touched crucial evidence.

Finally an officer proposed a thorough search of the house, and she sent John Ramsey to do it—another error. At 1:20 p.m., Ramsey discovered his daughter's body in the wine cellar. She lay on her back, her bound arms over her head, and she was wrapped in a white blanket. A piece of black duct tape was over her mouth. Although she was dressed, nearby lay her favorite pink nightgown.

John Ramsey ripped off the tape and carried the body upstairs. The dead child was then covered with a blanket, interfering with both trace evidence and the dropping body temperature.

Because of the holiday, the coroner, Dr. John Meyer, did not arrive for more than six hours. At 8 that evening, after the crime scene had been thoroughly trampled by numerous people, he examined the body. It had been 14 to 22 hours since she had died.

At autopsy, Meyer found chunks of pineapple in JonBenet's upper digestive tract, but she had not eaten this for dinner and no one recalled her eating a snack before bed. Yet there was a bowl of cut pineapple in the kitchen. How and when she had consumed this remained a mystery.

Cyril Wecht entered the case via a phone call from a supermarket tabloid, the Globe. He did not know the case he was being asked to review, only told that it was on the "west coast." When he got the photos, he realized the case was that of JonBenet Ramsey. From what he could see, he thought she had been bound with the intent to restrain, not kill. It even hinted of a sex game gone wrong. The fact that the killer had written a ransom note as an afterthought, rather than bringing it along, also seemed strangely unprepared for a kidnapping, as did the note's complexity, content and length. Wecht decided that molestation was the primary motive and that the death itself was accidental.

As he paid attention to the case and read the portion of the autopsy report that was released, he noted items that supported the likelihood of chronic sexual abuse—that is, her vaginal injury had not occurred at the time of the crime. It may have been done by a finger or some object, not via outright rape, but he believed it was clear that before the murder someone had behaved inappropriately with the child.

People both inside and outside of the investigation reacted to that statement.

Yet as more of the autopsy report was released, he felt more certain of his analysis, and recent events appear to bear him out.

"I have learned that the police called in three separate child sexual abuse experts," he reports. "They separately and independently came to the same conclusion that there was evidence of prior sexual abuse. Not that I needed anybody to hold my hand, but for saying that same thing I took abuse on national television from self-appointed Ramsey defenders and sycophants. But it's the most ridiculous thing in the world, a little girl with half of the hymen gone and she's dead, and you've got a tiny abrasion, a tiny contusion and a chronic inflammation of vaginal mucosa. That means it happened more than 72 hours earlier; we don't know how long, or how often it was repeated, but chronic means it wasn't from that night. This was a tragic, tragic accident. This was a game that had been played before."

Wecht was also troubled by the blow to the head, an eight-and-a-half inch fracture that had split the bone. Around it was an area of hemorrhaging, while under the skull there had been more bleeding, but the report on that was a surprise. There was much less blood found than he had expected. He believed that meant that at the time of the blow, she'd had a relatively weak, even nonexistent, heartbeat.

"If you inflict a blow like that on someone whose heart is beating," he asserts, "the heart doesn't stop, because the cardiac and respiratory centers are at the base of the brain. You're not damaging that with a blow to the top of the head. It'll become compromised as the brain swells, but initially there's no compromise. They control your heart and lungs. The heart continues to beat. The blood continues to flow. But in the Ramsey case, they got less than a teaspoon and a half of blood. If you have a beating heart and the carotid arteries are carrying blood, this person doesn't die right away. That means that blow was inflicted when she was already dead or dying."

He also had seen a partial transcript of an interrogation of John Ramsey from very early in the case, which supported his ideas. "The cops were asking him what he knew about the experts on the case, and he said he'd heard different things. Among the things was that an expert had said that the blows were inflicted when she was dead or dying. I've been saying that for several years."

Wecht went on to write a book about the case, Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey?, to provide his medical opinion in much more detail. Contrary to more recent reports, he does not believe that the evidence supports the notion that an intruder perpetrated this deed.

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