Armed with a few invisible skin cells, prosecutors are now certain they have the DNA profile of the man who killed 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey.
Finding the man himself is another matter.
Investigators hoping to solve the nearly 12-year-old crime will have to locate a match in a growing national DNA database that currently has more than 5 million offenders’ profiles.
How long it might take depends on whether the killer has any major brushes with the law that would make him subject to a mandatory DNA test.
“If this person has no criminal record and has never been DNA-typed in another case, this murderer is going to be on our streets,” said Larry Pozner, a Denver attorney and a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The evidence against an unknown “third party” came Wednesday when prosecutors announced that new tests pointed to a mystery attacker and cleared JonBenet’s parents and her older brother Burke.
'Our final goal'
It was a vindication for the Ramsey family, but the girl’s mother, Patsy, had not lived long enough to see it. She died of cancer in 2006.
“We still don’t have our killer yet. That’s our final goal, and that’s the goal that we’re still striving toward, and we won’t stop until we get there,” said Pam Paugh, Patsy Ramsey’s sister, on CBS’ “The Early Show” Thursday.
“She went to her maker knowing that she had a clear conscience and a full heart.”
John Ramsey found his daughter’s strangled and bludgeoned body in the basement of the family’s home in Boulder on Dec. 26, 1996. Patsy Ramsey said she found a ransom note demanding $118,000 for her daughter.
‘Umbrella of suspicion’
For years after the slaying, tabloids and crime shows went after the couple, and then-District Attorney Alex Hunter said in 1997 that the parents were under an “umbrella of suspicion.” News reports also cast suspicion on JonBenet’s brother, who was 9 when his sister was killed.
“It has been too many years for this family to have suffered the injustice of being falsely accused of a crime they did not commit,” said L. Lin Wood, lawyer for Patsy’s husband, John.
Early in the investigation, police found male DNA in a drop of blood on JonBenet’s underwear and determined it was not from anyone in her family. Investigators were unable to say who it came from and whether that person was the killer.
In 2003, the Ramseys got a major boost when a federal judge handling a defamation lawsuit involving the couple said the evidence was more consistent with the theory that an intruder killed JonBenet.
Veering into the absurd
Three years later, only months after Patsy Ramsey died, the case seemed to veer into absurdity when John Mark Karr, an American teacher in Thailand, offered a bizarre confession to the slaying.
He was whisked from to Colorado but was released after prosecutors concluded he couldn’t have killed her, and once again there was no prime suspect.
Then, late last year, prosecutors turned over long underwear JonBenet was wearing to the Bode Technology Group near Washington, which looked for “touch DNA,” or skin cells left behind where someone has touched something. The lab has only been using this technology for about three years.
The laboratory found previously undiscovered genetic material on the sides of the girl’s long underwear, where an attacker would have grasped the clothing to pull it down, authorities said. The DNA matched the genetic material found earlier.
DNA, but no name
District Attorney Mary Lacy said the presence of the same male DNA in three places on the girl’s clothing convinced investigators it belonged to JonBenet’s killer and had not been left accidentally by an innocent party.
“It is therefore the position of the Boulder District Attorney’s Office that this profile belongs to the perpetrator of the homicide,” she said in a statement Wednesday. In a letter to the Ramseys, she said the DNA evidence “has vindicated your family.”
Now investigators have DNA, if not a name.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation spokesman Lance Clem said Colorado’s own database has 86,662 DNA profiles, all of which are entered in the national database.
The Colorado profiles include sex offenders dating back at least 20 years, plus any felon from the past three years in the Department of Corrections system, Clem said.
While Colorado’s DNA database is updated continuously, the national database is updated several times a week, Clem said. The numbers are still small compared to the more than 55 million entries in the FBI’s fingerprint database.
“I think it’s simply a matter now of waiting for that day when they get a hit on the DNA and the person who brutally murdered this child is brought to justice,” Wood said.