Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder of JonBenet Ramsey

Time of Death

A factor to consider is the time that JonBenet died. The normal body temperature of a human is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The body gradually cools after death. The rate of cooling is determined by the ambient temperature around the body and by the victim's body size and clothing. The temperature of the body is normally taken rectally by the medical examiner as the buttocks, being the largest area of a body's mass, are the last area to retain body heat. Body heat dissipates from a deceased person at approximately 1.5 degrees per hour, but will often vary according to the temperature in the room, and to the age and gender of the victim.

The rate of advancement of rigor mortis is another method used to determine time of death. Rigor mortis is the stiffening of the muscles caused by chemical changes in the muscle tissue after death. The onset of rigor mortis normally begins within 2 to 4 hours after death and takes between 6 to 12 hours for the entire body to be affected. Normally, after 24-36 hours after death, the affects of rigor mortis have dissipated.

According to the police report, JonBenet was last seen alive at approximately 10:00 p.m. on December 25, 1996. John Ramsey, in company with Fleet White, found JonBenet dead in the basement at approximately 1:05 p.m. on December 26, 1996. When police first sighted the body, they observed that the body was affected by advanced rigor mortis. Rigor mortis is known to spread through the lesser muscled parts of the body first and gradually spreads through the body, affecting the larger body parts last. John Ramsey found JonBenet at 1:05 p.m. and her body was completely set with rigor mortis, which indicates that she had died between 10:00 p.m. on December 25 and 6:00 a.m. on December 26.

The police also reported a smell of decomposition on the body. Again, the rate of decomposition depends on room temperature and the body's levels of bacteria and enzyme activity. Typically, for every ten-degree increase in room temperature, the rate of decomposition is doubled. For the odor of decomposition to have been detected by the police, JonBenet would have had to have died near the beginning of the estimated time frame. If that was the case, the perpetrator would have had ample time to commit the offense, write a ransom note and escape.

The second theory is that the murder was committed by someone in the house. Given that the evidence implicating the Ramseys had been largely based on rumor and innuendo, and all physical trace evidence has failed to prove their involvement, there aren't too many other possibilities. Police never seriously considered Burke Ramsey, JonBenet's brother, a suspect.