Seventeen years after the nation was riveted by the unsolved murder of 6-year-old beauty-pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey, an indictment of her parents — which was kept secret and never prosecuted — will be released Friday.
It's unclear what light the 18 pages of grand jury documents will shed on the mystery that spawned books, TV movies and countless theories about who killed the little girl found dead in the basement of her Colorado home on Dec. 26, 1996.
Scott Robinson, a prominent Denver defense lawyer who has followed the case for years, said the court papers probably include a statement of supporting facts that would "give us a sense of of what the grand jury was thinking when they saw the evidence available at that time."
If the evidence seems weak, that may explain why prosecutors at the time decided not to act on the indictment and charge John or Patricia Ramsey — an "extraordinarily unusual" outcome, according to Robinson.
He noted that the grand jury's findings are a snapshot only of what was available in 1998 and don't include evidence that has been uncovered since. The indictment also represents the lower threshold of finding probable cause for charges — not proving those charges.
"It doesn’t take a lot to get an indictment," Robinson said. "The old saying about indicting a ham sandwich may not be completely true but if it’s a ham and cheese sandwich, it's easier."
A newspaper reporter and a media-freedom organization fought to get the indictment unsealed. John Ramsey sought to block the release, saying it would defame him and his late wife, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006.
His lawyers argued the indictment should not be released without unsealing the entire grand jury record so the public could consider the reams of evidence in the case.
In his ruling, Senior District Judge J. Robert Lowenbach said he was "sympathetic" to the Ramsey family's position but was only allowed under law to release the indictment — nine pages related to John and nine pages to Patricia.
"It appears that the District Attorney, presumably acting at the direction of the grand jury, prepared a series of possible charges regarding John Ramsey and Patricia Ramsey based on the fact that the child had died and that there was evidence that a sexual assault of the child had occurred," Lowenbach wrote.
Prosecutors never charged the Ramseys, who did not appear before the grand jury.
"We do not have sufficient evidence to warrant a filing of charges against anyone who has been investigated at this time," Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter said then.
Boulder police put the Ramseys under an "umbrella of suspicion" soon after the killing and they stayed there until 2008 when Hunter's successor as DA publicly exonerated them.
In a letter, DA Mary Lacy said the couple and their son, Burke, were no longer "under suspicion" after new DNA tests on evidence.
"We intend in the future to treat you as the victims of this crime, with the sympathy due you because of the horrific loss you suffered," she wrote.
DNA was found on JonBenet's underwear right after she was killed, and more sophisticated testing years later matched it to trace DNA found in two other spots on her clothing.
Lacy said it was "very unlikely that there would be an innocent explanation for DNA found at three different locations on two separate items of clothing worn by the victim at the time of her murder" — bolstering the idea that an intruder was responsible.
The Ramseys reported JonBenet missing the morning of Dec. 26 after finding a ransom note that asked for $118,000. Later that day, John Ramsey found her blanket-covered body in the basement. There was duct tape on her mouth and a cord around her neck, with a broken paintbrush used as a garrote.
Glamor photos of the child — a winner of child beauty contests — helped turn the case into a global sensation, with armchair sleuths analyzing the tantalizing clues: no obvious sign of forced entry, a ransom note signed a "small foreign faction" that asked for the exact amount of John Ramsey's bonus that year, undigested pineapple in the girl's stomach.
Given the DA's decision not to charge the Ramseys, it seems unlikely that the documents being released Friday will contain any kind of smoking gun. But Robinson said they may put some old rumors to rest or confirm some details.
"We may learn some very interesting stuff," he said.