DENVER — Prosecutors cleared JonBenet Ramsey's parents and brother Wednesday in the 1996 killing of the 6-year-old beauty queen, saying they were "deeply sorry" for putting the family under a cloud of suspicion for more than a decade.
New DNA tests, which focus on skin cells left behind from a mere touch, point to a mysterious outsider. They came too late to clear the name of JonBenet's mother, Patsy, who died of cancer in 2006.
"To the extent that we may have contributed in any way to the public perception that you might have been involved in this crime, I am deeply sorry," Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy wrote in a letter to the child's father, John Ramsey. "No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion."
Ramsey, a software entrepreneur who now lives in Michigan, said Wednesday he is hopeful the killer will be found based on the DNA evidence.
"I think the people that are in charge of the investigation are focused on that, and that gives me a lot of comfort," he told KUSA-TV, an NBC affiliate in Denver. He added: "Certainly we are grateful that they acknowledged that we, based on that, certainly could not have been involved."
“But the most important thing is that we now have very, very solid evidence — and that’s always been my hope, at least in the recent past — that would lead us to the killer eventually,” Ramsey said.
For years after the slaying, checkout-aisle tabloids and crime shows went after the couple. News reports cast suspicion on JonBenet’s older brother, Burke. Boulder police investigating the murder said the parents were under an “umbrella of suspicion.”
Lacy had previously expressed doubts that the parents were involved. In 2003, a federal judge handling a defamation lawsuit in Atlanta involving the Ramseys said evidence in the case was more consistent with the theory that an intruder killed JonBenet, not her parents, and Lacy said she agreed.
Less than two months after Patsy Ramsey died, the case appeared to blow wide open with the arrest in Thailand of John Mark Karr, a sometime teacher obsessed with the little girl’s slaying. Karr made bizarre, detailed confessions to the killing, but authorities said DNA evidence showed he did not commit the crime.
Ramsey blamed the news media for fixating on his family, saying, “It became an entertainment event for the media, sadly. It boosted ratings, attracted viewers, to develop that controversy.”
He called for more coverage of the “2,000 children murdered in our country every year.”
Patsy Ramsey’s sister, Pam Paugh, said the exoneration was “a long time in coming and a very pleasant gift.”
The letter means “we have a killer on the loose,” Paugh said in an interview with MSNBC. “That killer remains at large.
“In the long run, we have to say [that] whoever did this to JonBenet, if they do not receive earthly justice, than clearly they are going to receive an afterlife justice that is not going to be pretty."
12 years of harsh scrutiny
Lacy based her decision, according to the letter, on the results of new DNA samples secured and tested at Bode Technology Group in Lorton, Va. The DNA technology, called “touch” analysis, was not available in 1996.
The recent testing was conducted on a different area of the girl's clothing, and it matches previous DNA tested from the child’s panties in 1997.
“That genetic profile belongs to a male and does not belong to anyone in the Ramsey family,” the district attorney’s office said in a statement. “The unexplained third party DNA on the clothing of the victim is very significant and powerful evidence.”
According to Boulder police reports, the family got up early the day after Christmas to fly to Charlevoix, Mich., to visit family.
Patsy Ramsey found a ransom note at the bottom of a spiral staircase about 5:30 or 6 that morning. Police were called and searched the home, but JonBenet's body was not found until another search of the home was conducted five hours later by John Ramsey.
In April 1997, Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter declared the family under an “umbrella of suspicion.”
Nine years later, in June 2006, Patsy Ramsey died after a 13-year battle with ovarian cancer.
Boulder DA investigators and Lacy made the decision late last year to have the leggings of JonBenet’s panties tested at the Bode Lab. It is not clear if the leggings had been previously tested for DNA.
The investigators considered the possibility that since JonBenet was sexually assaulted and undressed and redressed, it was possible that the perpetrator left skin cell samples on the waistband of the leggings.
The Bode Lab recovered DNA from the top part of the leggings, on both the right and left legs, where the perpetrator would have put his hands to move them. Those new “touch” samples from the leggings match the DNA that was found in 1997 on the panties.
At the time of JonBenet’s death, technology for DNA testing on the child’s panties used swabs from fluid obtained from skin and clothing to establish DNA identity.
The previous 1997 DNA swab testing of the child’s panties found DNA in two separate areas. The 1997 DNA contained enough information or DNA markers to be entered into the federal DNA database called CODIS.
The new touch DNA from JonBenet has been compared with what exists in CODIS, but no match has been found.
By Paula Woodward of KUSA-TV of Denver and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com.