Essay: “There is Another Court”
Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Feb. 2004. 107-111, 181-187.
— Jean-Paul Sartre
— JonBenét Ramsey, aged 5, to family gardener
— Detective Steve Thomas
In 1997, the year after the death of JonBenét Ramsey 3,000 child beauty pageants were held in the United States. By 2001 the number of pageants held annually had grown to 25,000.
The autopsy performed on JonBenét Ramsey revealed that she was sexually assaulted at the time of her death. The autopsy also found evidence of sexual abuse (digital) in the days preceding her death and chronically in the months preceding it.1
Unusual in such cases, the crime scene indicated that great care had been taken to wrap the body in a blanket and to place with it a favored pink nightgown.
Autopsy evidence also indicated that the murder was unusually brutal. The child was strangled by a garotte fashioned from a cord and a paint brush, but when she was in the agonal stages of death a blunt blow of extreme force was delivered to her skull. The force of this blow was such that the autopsy revealed near the back of her head a displaced section of skull about three/fourths by one/half inch.
The following concluded an editorial on the murder of JonBenét Ramsey that appeared in TIME magazine on Jan 14,1997: "...there is the question of whether this is a work of the darkest evil imaginable or a more or less random act of malice and greed gone awry. Evil on this scale is impossible to comprehend. To know who murdered JonBenét Ramsey is to know what world we live in, where we are."2
Lead investigator Detective Steve Thomas, after a three year investigation, obtained from the F.B I. Crime lab the judgment that sufficient evidence had been gathered to warrant a probable cause indictment of Patsy Ramsey for JonBenét's murder. Despite an exhaustive knowledge of the facts, when it comes to offering a scenario reconstructing the crime and its motives, Thomas makes no mention of the sexual. The murder, he suggests, was the accidental result of a blow struck in rage by Patsy over JonBenét's continued bed-wetting.3
Detective Lou Smit, on the other hand, in an attempt to exonerate the Ramseys dwells on the sexual aspects of the case since this provides for him compelling "evidence" that an intruder must have committed the crime. Armed with the assurance that "no mother could do a thing like that" — especially not the good Christians he knows the Ramseys to be, having prayed with them — Smit seeks out "facts" sufficient to conjure a scenario peopled by a vast ring of sexual predators itching to prey on the American family. For as Smits never tires of reiterating, "JonBenét was a pedophile's dream."4 What he never asks is how she got to be that way.
Thomas and Smit's positions typify the two views that have been developed of the crime by investigators.5 They also illustrate the force of a curious disjunctive syllogism. To put it crudely: if the mother did it the sexual must be eliminated. If the sexual is retained, the murderer must be sought outside the family. Investigation succumbs to repression. Even though two facts are presumably well known by law enforcement personnel: (1) over 80% of children sexually abused are abused by a parent or close relative; (2) 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men are subjected to sexual abuse in their childhood.) In short, there's another possible story here and it has not been told.
The repression of that story also characterizes the trajectory of how the Ramsey case has been handled in the media. Three phases can be discerned.
Phase 1: The solicitation of the audience's voyeurism. The sexuality of the videos is foregrounded and exhibited at every opportunity in the coverage of the case. A feeding frenzy for videos of JonBenét performing, the more provocative the better. The media knew that it had in the videos a rorscharch to the perverse imaginary. Sex and the child was on display in a way sure to capture a huge audience. Crassly and sensationalistically, something heartbreaking was turned into a dirty joke. The wedding of kiddie porn and necrophila. Hints and innuendoes invited viewers to project whatever their psyches desire.
Phase 2: By 1998 there is a dramatic shift in media coverage. One of the best examples: in the Rikki Kleimann special for Court TV, a panel of experts (the most cogent among them one Mark Furhmann) discuss the evidence in terms of four potential suspects: John, Patsy, Burke (the Ramsey's son), and an intruder. Everyone is serious, objective, impartial in paying attention to what forensic evidence reveals. But all reference to the sexual is scrupulously avoided. It is as if anything connected with that topic has proven to be of no evidentiary significance and so is now off limits. And yet every six or eight minutes, with the break for a commercial, we get for approximately 20 seconds a clip from one of the more provocative JonBenét videos. The producers know, this is the hook that keeps us from switching channels. It is now, however, something that cannot be discussed.
Dan Rather exemplifies the next step in what is, we'll see, a necessary process. Reviewing the inconclusive state of investigations in the case. Rather concludes a 48HOURS special by offering his audience what amounts to moral instruction. "And then there are those videos which some people unfortunately find provocative."6 But not certainly good people like us who know that Rather is telling us what we must now proclaim in order to assure our membership in the society of those with clean minds. The transformation is complete. The Ramsey case is now a pure "whodunit" having nothing to do with sex or child beauty pageants. Sex is all in the eye of the aberrant viewer. Not, assuredly, in the media. Nor in the family.
Phase 3: It can only return, accordingly, as an evil outside the family that preys on its innocence. The stage is set for Lou Smit, whose hour-long interview with Katie Couric in 2001 assures us of two things: that there are sexual predators out there, everywhere; but not in the family which is a haven of Christian and maternal love. (This interview typifies the way the Ramsey case is now handled in a media intent, in the name of fairness, on airing shows devoted to presenting "evidence" suggesting the possible innocence of the Ramseys.) A new audience is hailed by Smit: an audience appalled by sexual deviancy and ardent in sharing Smit's view of family values etc.
From these examples a clear structure can be discerned. The media solicits voyeurism. Denies that fact. Then moralistically instructs us to deny any interest in the sexual while projecting it as an evil that preys on us from outside. Voyeurism. Denial. Projection. What we first were invited to experience as pervert we can now abjure as hysteric.
One of the ironies in this scenario is that it could have been scripted by Patsy Ramsey: who told us that the pageants "were just a Sunday thing," not a family obsession; that there is absolutely nothing sexual in them, except to those who view the innocent play of children with dirty minds; and who within a week of her daughter's death went on national TV (Larry King Live) to warn us: "Keep your babies close to you. There's someone out there."7
And so with respect to child beauty pageants and what they might reveal about the American family and American society, a discourse that should have taken place did not because the image that could have informed that discourse was rendered undecidable, yet another aporia of perception. Some viewers find the pageants objectionable. Others see them as good, clean fun. And then there are those few out there who "unfortunately find them provocative." They are left with the burden of their deviance. But we've been cleansed. It's all a matter of taste and opinion. The image that originally held our attention is banished lest it trouble our conscience.8 The pleasures derived from JonBenét are locked in the eye of the beholder, but what she could have taught us remains, like our collective hearts, a blank slate. Voyeurism gave her 15 minutes of posthumous fame; she was then discarded on the dungheap of what we must forget so that cleansed of any possible knowledge we can rush to the next spectacle the media provides eager to repeat the pleasure we gain from forgetting.
Thanks to the ministrations of the media, a story that can't be told — a story about sex in the family — vanishes with the passing of the image that first made it possible to take up the emotional burden required to tell that story.
Because the essay is written for a general audience I have confined discussion of a number of scholarly and theoretical issues to Endnotes.
1. For the most complete analysis of the autopsy, see Cyril H. Wecht and Charles Bosworth, Jr. Who Killed JonBenét Ramsey: A Leading Forensic Expert Uncovers the Shocking Facts. (Signet/New American Library, 1998). For analysis of the autopsy by those experts who advised the Boulder Grand Jury, see Lawrence Schiller, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town (Harper Collins, 1999), pp.43-46, 361-362, 436-437 and Steve Thomas, JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation (St. Martin's Press, 2000), p.253.
2. This editorial was written by James R.Gaines, former Managing Editor of Time.
3. The testimony of housekeepers indicate that bedwetting (and other matters of cleanliness) were of relative unimportance to the Ramseys. See Schiller, p.237, 560-561.
4. Smit presented his theory of the case on a Katie Couric Special Hour-Long Interview on NBC in 2001. For Smit's views see also Schiller, pp.268-269. This theory has always had and continues to have a number of supporters in the Boulder D.A.'s office, many of whom have also expressed their view that no parent could commit such a grisly crime. One suspects we have not seen the last in the political and legal machinations that have characterized this case from the beginning. See note #5 for a development that occurred just as this book was about to go to press.
5. It is not my purpose to review the evidence that has been gathered in support of the two theories nor to evaluate that evidence. A number of books already exist on this topic. It should be pointed out, however, that a preponderance of evidence supports the view that the murder was an inside job. The intruder theory, always a creature of precarious conjectures, has not withstood scrutiny. All the "evidence" adduced to support it either cannot be tested (the stun-gun) or has been explained in a way that offers no support to the intruder hypothesis. On the murder as an inside job, see Schiller, pp. 235,368, 386-388 and Thomas, pp. 241-244, 254-255, 346-347, and Wecht, passim. On the intruder theory, see Schiller, pp. 575-576 and Thomas, pp. 323-324, 346-347.
A word is needed here, however, regarding the latest development in the Ramsey affair. Judge Julie Carnes of Atlanta, the Antonin Scalia of U.S. District Court Judges, used the occcasion of dismissing a libel suit against the Ramseys by Chris Wolf to give her opinion on a far weightier matter: namely, that in her view there is no evidence showing the parents killed JonBenet and considerable evidence indicating that an intruder did it. See Wolf v. Ramsey. Westlaw citation: 2003WL1821525 (N.D. Ga). The primary basis of the judge's reasoning appears to be this piece of sophistry: Steve Thomas had no previous experience with murder cases before heading the Ramsey investigation while Lou Smit is "an expert investigator who has successfully cracked other child murder investigations." The bastion of weak rhetoric — the argument from authority — is thus invoked to obviate the need for rigorous scrutiny of the complete body of evidence that exists in support of the two theories. Which did not stop Judge Carnes from indulging her own version of Catch-22: namely, that to win his libel case Chris Wolf would have had to put the Ramseys on trial for murder. Emboldened by Carnes' example of judicial reasoning, Boulder District Attorney Mary Kennan within a week of the ruling issued a statement expressing her agreement with the judge's views. This capped Mr. Kennan's involvement in the case, an involvement distinguished by opposition to police investigators, support of the intruder theory, and favoritism to the Ramseys. For example, Ms. Kennan met with the Ramseys in private for 4 hours in February of 2003, at which time she also took the case out of the hands of the Boulder police. Judge Carnes, incidentally, excoriates the police for releasing information to the media but makes nary a mention of the far greater number of anti police leaks from the Boulder D.A's office. (See Schiller, passim, Thomas, passim and Wecht, pp.333-335.)
In light of such considerations, it is worth noting that the judge's ruling abounds in errors of fact and interpretation. The latter occur when a debatable conclusion is drawn with no consideration given to other ways the data can be interpreted and, more importantly, no recognition given of the non-evidentiary and non-scientific status of what is cited as "undisputed evidence" permitting only one inference. To cite just a few examples. In commenting on the rope and cord found at the crime scene, the judge claims that the defendants did not possess such items. What she apparently doesn't know is that we will never know what the Ramseys possessed because John Ramsey's whereabouts for an hour after the arrival of the police the morning of the crime are unaccounted for and because Patsy's sister Pam was permitted to remove several boxes of items from the house in the days immediately following the crime. (See Thomas, pp. 56-58.) And so vide the duct tape the judge claims the Ramseys didn't possess. Vide her claim that a rope found in a brown paper sack in the guest bedroom did not belong to either defendant; though here, significantly, the only basis for the judge's conclusions appears to be the defendant's claim that the rope wasn't theirs. Other errors stem from the judge's ignorance of the rudimentary knowledge about the case available to anyone who takes the trouble to read a book such as Lawrence Schiller's Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. For example, the judge cites the complex knots in the rope and cords fashioning the garotte and claims that neither defendant possessed the knowledge required to make them. Apparently she is unaware that John Ramsey was in the U.S. Navy and owned a boat which the whole family enjoyed. Equally troubling is the judge's cavalier citation as "undisputed evidence" indicating an intruder of facts — such as the "HI-TEC" brand shoeprint found in the basement, the suitcase near a window, etc — that are susceptible to a number of other explanations, some of which derive from the very situation she acknowledges in criticizing police investigators; namely, the contamination of the crime scene by John Ramsey, Fleet White, and police investigators. Vide the reference to the unidentified DNA found in JonBenet's panties and the single male pubic hair found on the blanket covering her; though here what Judge Carnes apparently doesn't know is that a number of innocent explanations are possible for such data and, additionally, that those explanations are backed by known facts. (See Thomas, pp.153-154). Most troubling of all is her references to the stun-gun as "undisputed evidence" of an intruder since the original proponent of the stun-gun theory, Lou Smit, acknowledges that the only way to prove the theory is by exhuming the body of the deceased.
But hypothetical reasoning in terms of the method of multiple working hypothesis (on which see below, section number 8) is not the judge's forte. She typifies, in contrast, a particularly egregious example of the fallacy of precarious selectivity: in the collection of date, its interpretation, and, most pointedly, in excluding the mass of evidence undermining the hypothesis that has a hypnotic hold over her attention. The wealth of evidence that points to Patsy is reduced to a single consideration — whether Patsy wrote the ransom note. That question is then decided on the basis of favoring one panel of experts and excluding the testing of others, both those made available by the plaintiff and those cited in Schiller. Another alarming sign of single-mindedness concerns those "facts" from which the judge derives a significance totally at odds with the view of all experts. For example, she cites approvingly the profile of the killer published by the Ramseys in their book (and earlier, unbeknownst to the judge, in a newspaper ad). The judge describes this profile — " a male ex-convict, aged 25-35, who is familiar with and owns a stun-gun" — as "detailed" unaware, apparently, that former F.B.I. profiler Gregg McCrary judged it superficial and useless due to its vagueness and generality. Another kind of naivete marks the one reference the judge makes to the content of the ransom note — the instruction to John Ramsey that he "use that good southern [sic] common sense" — as evidence Patsy didn't write the note since she knows John is from Michigan. The possible sarcasm of the reference an its consistency with the phraseology of a southern Belle such as Patsy escapes the judge. As does something far more important, which as a jurisprude the judge should know. When in court a lawyer opens an issue it must then be pursued rigorously wherever it leads. With respect to the content of the ransom note, that principle should have led the judge to a consideration of the detailed and often brilliant examination by Andrew G. Hodges in A Mother Gone Bad (Village House Publishers, 1998) of the ransom note and its similarity in phraseology, content, the use of acronyms, etc. to other documents written by Patsy Ramsey. Such perceptions would, however, have led the judge in directions she was unwilling or unable to pursue. In this connection it is worth noting the judge's concurrence with the view of Lou Smit and most members of the Boulder D.A.'s office that the grisly nature of the murder argues against a mother's involvement. That belief, an idee fixe which has an a priori status for proponents of the intruder theory, flies in the face of the knowledge established by the F.B.I. that only 1 in 12 child murders is committed by someone outside the family and that the details of such murders are often, indeed, grisly. Incidentally, Judge Carnes sees no evidence of "sexual abuse" in the Ramsey family history yet cites as evidence of an intruder Lou Smit's statement that the deceased was a "pedophile's dream come true."
All of the peculiarities of Judge Carnes' ruling are traceable to a single circumstance. Judge Carnes' knowledge of the "Ramsey case" in general is restricted to what was presented to her in a civil libel proceeding. That is, (1) to Chris Wolf's repetition of the weakest parts in Steve Thomas' accidental-murder-due-to-bed-wetting scenario and Wolf's representation by an attorney, Darnay Hoffman, whose communications at an earlier time to former Boulder D.A. Alex Hunter raise serious questions about his competence [see Carnes, p.12] and who was unprepared to counter (2) the legal juggernaut unleashed by the Ramsey's attorney, Lin Wood, who cleverly exploited the situation in order to enter, as "undisputed evidence," matters that would have been quickly and easily undermined by a more competent counsel for plaintiff. The same circumstance underlies the judge's acceptance of Wolf's theory of the crime as both a complete and the only possible theory of Patsy as the murderess when it is, in fact, no such thing. The larger body of evidence pointing to Patsy was never heard in Judge Carnes' court. She remains sublimely unaware of what is known by anyone who has done the basic reading on the case. Given what was presented to her, the dismissal of Wolf's libel claim is understandable. What isn't is the presumption by Judge Carnes to opine on matters regarding which she lacks both the requisite knowledge and authority.
But I'm toiling in pitch. For what comes across most clearly in the judge's prose is the virtual scripting of her ruling by Lin Wood. Indeed, the ruling repeats statements made by Wood on a number of occasions and reads like a brief written by the Ramsey's legal team. The ruling is littered with non-sequiturs, all pro Ramsey. For example, "nothing out-of-the-ordinary occurred at the party [the Ramseys went to on the evening of the murder] and the Ramsey family appeared happy," the implication being that this constitutes evidence neither parent could have gone home and committed murder when, of course, it signifies nothing save our common ability to don the masks that social occasions require. Similarly, the litany of misleading claims by the Ramseys to have cooperated fully with investigators is repeated by Judge Carnes as an unquestioned article of faith. The Ramsey's suggestions regarding suspects who should be investigated are repeated without acknowledge that over 100 suspects were investigated and cleared by the police. Moreover, given the judge's excoriation of the police, the unmistakable implication is that those suspects she names remain so. This is especially sad and needlessly cruel in the case of the cleared and now deceased Bill McReynolds ("Santa") and his widow. (See Carnes, p.30). But then the Ramseys have shown a careless disregard for who they name as suspects (a list that includes a number of formerly close friends) along with a keen appreciation of the advantage of continuing to defame said suspects long after the Ramseys know that their "suspicions" are false. The real scandal, however, is that a judge would use the limited situation of a libel case to advance broad and sweeping statements on the Ramsey case in general, knowing, as she must have, that those statements would take on in the media a status disproportionate to her knowledge and at odds with the vast body of evidence she would have been forced to look at were she presiding at a criminal trial conducted by a competent prosecutor. In this, of course, she played into the hands of Lin Wood who from the beginning has done O.J.'s lawyers one better, Wood's general strategy being through press conference to use the media to influence and intimidate the Boulder D.A.'s office in order to prevent there ever being a trial.
It is often asked what lasting damage Scalia and "the felonious four" (former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's term) did to the legal system in pulling off the judicial coup d'etat that put an end to a democratic, electoral process because, in Scalia's immortal reasoning, letting the vote count continue would have done grave harm to Mr. Bush's legitimation. In Judge Carnes' ruling we have a stunning instance of the kind of fallout we can expect from the High Court's example. Judicial nullification before the fact on behalf of the privileged — a demonstration of how easily legal firepower can bend the law to its designs. Not suprisingly, the Ramseys hailed the ruling as full vindication (Lin Wood: "essentially this was a civil murder trial) and it was reported as such in a media eager to give closure to JonBenet so that it could turn its attention to "fresh woods and pastures new."
6. Dan Rather 48 Hours Special, CBS, 1998. On the purchase of the videos by the networks and the awareness of the "sex angle" as the key to selling this story, see Schiller, pp. 68-69.
7. Schiller, pp.68-71.
8. In the wake of the Ramsey case, no serious public discussion about child beauty pageants, the sexualization of children by their parents and the tacit assumption that parents have a right to use their children in such ways took place. Nor, to my knowledge, has there been any effort to advance the idea that Social Services should investigate such families, to say nothing of the possibility of introducing legislation to criminalize such activities. Nor, as number 1 indicates, has there been any effort by local authorities and agencies to stem the growth of a budding industry — the child beauty pageant.
Psychoanalytic discussion of the case has, of course, been eschewed by the media. With one noteworthy exception — the tabloids. Here it thrives because it is rendered ridiculous and perverse — the free invention of sick minds. The tabloids thus fulfill their ideological function — to discredit psychoanalytic thinking by presenting its parody.
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Essay: “There is Another Court”
Art and Politics, Chapter 7: "An Evening with JonBenét Ramsey: A Monologue"
Table of Contents
|Cowboy's Sweetheart — A Play in Three Acts||11|
|There is Another Court||107|
|Casting the Audience: Toward a Theatre of Primary Emotions||159|
|Appendix: Legal Memorandum||201|