SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The former suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey killing left jail Thursday after a judge dismissed child pornography charges against him, saying prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to take the case to trial.
John Mark Karr was ordered released immediately by Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau, ending his two-month odyssey in the U.S. criminal justice system after he was extradited from Thailand on suspicion of killing the 6-year-old beauty queen.
He did not comment to reporters as he left the Sonoma County jail flanked by his attorneys and rode off in a black Volvo sport-utility vehicle.
Karr, 41, was returned to California last month to face the five-year-old pornography case after DNA evidence cleared him of killing the girl in her Boulder, Colo., home in 1996.
The misdemeanor pornography case fell apart almost as quickly, as investigators admitted losing vital computer evidence that was seized from Karr in April 2001 when he was working as a substitute teacher in Sonoma and Napa counties.
Defense lawyers tried twice unsuccessfully to get the charges dismissed and were seeking to have evidence barred from trial when prosecutors gave up. They said they couldn’t establish when the child porn images had been downloaded on Karr’s computer.
“The impression that we’ve had all along is that the prosecution had every intention of getting this case to trial, regardless of the evidence,” said defense lawyer Robert Amparan. “I am pleasantly surprised by them having done the right thing.”
Prosecutors acknowledged that if Karr were convicted he would not have served any additional time in jail, because he spent several months behind bars awaiting trial in 2001. They said they were seeking to have him register as a sex offender.
Karr was not in court for the hearing. He was expected to be released from jail later in the day. It was not immediately clear where Karr would go or what he might do.
Karr had fled the state after being released from jail in 2001 and had been on the lam until his arrest in Bangkok, which caused a sensation when he told reporters he was with JonBenet when she died.
Karr, who moved to California from Alabama with his wife and three sons, first came to the attention of Sonoma County officials after an informant told authorities about alarming e-mails he had been sending her.
Investigators looked at Karr in connection with the unsolved 1997 murder of 12-year-old Georgia Moses, whose body was found dumped along a highway in Sonoma County, Karr’s lawyers said.
The sexually explicit pictures of children were later found during a search of his home, authorities said.
His arrest led school officials to strip him of his teaching credential, and his marriage ended in divorce later that year.
In hearings over the past two weeks, the defense accused prosecutors of misconduct for failing to alert the judge sooner that evidence was missing, and they questioned the strength of the evidence that remained. The defense also said the search warrants were based on an unreliable witness with a history of mental illness.
Sheriff Bill Cogbill said he accepted the prosecutor’s decision to drop the charges.
“We do acknowledge that there were some performance issues five years ago when we worked this case,” Cogbill said in a statement. “We’re conducting an internal affairs investigation into these issues, and we’re continuing an audit of our evidence handling procedures.”
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