Nov 07

Another Twist in the JonBonet Ramsey Case: Grand Jury Recommended Indictments for JonBonet’s Parents, But DA’s Office Declined

The tragic murder of kindergartener and pageant beauty queen JonBonet Ramsey in 1996 captivated our nation and fueled a media frenzy for years.  Now, over fifteen years after JonBonet’s death, newly released documents have brought the case back to mainstream media.  These documents establish that in 1999, the grand jury investigating JonBonet’s murder actually recommended charging both her parents, Jon and Patsy Ramsey, with child abuse resulting in death and being an accessory to the crime.  This revelation raises timely questions about the use of grand juries, prosecutorial discretion, and charging decisions.

JonBonet was found dead in her parents’ basement the day after Christmas.  Both parents were deemed suspects in the investigation, but they proclaimed their innocence and were never charged.  Indeed, in 2008 Boulder County District Attorney Mary T. Lacey wrote a letter to Mr. Ramsey clearing his family based on new DNA evidence.   She apologized on behalf of her office, “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” and expressed regret that this exoneration didn’t occur before Mrs. Ramsey’s death in 2006 from ovarian cancer.

After the grand jury heard evidence for over a year, then-Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge anyone, and the grand jury records remained sealed.  There was still speculation, however, about the Ramseys’ role in their daughter’s tragic death.

Now, with the release of these recommended indictments, the appropriateness of Hunter’s decision is being called into questioned.  On October 27th, Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett published an op-ed piece where he acknowledges he isn’t sure he would have made the same call:

These documents mean that this grand jury believed there was “probable cause” (a lower threshold standard of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt”) based on the evidence they had heard, that the named defendants had committed the crimes listed.  That they were not pursued within the statute of limitations means that the DAs with the authority to do so believed that the evidence did not rise to the necessary level to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at a jury trial.  I don’t know if I would have made the same decision, but I know how difficult these decisions are.

District Attorney Stan Garnett, “Another Perspective on Release of Ramsey Indictment,” Daily Camera (Oct. 27, 2013) (emphasis added).  Further, last week the Boulder Police Department released a statement that was critical of Hunter’s decision, explaining that:

Investigators at the time were disappointed in the then district attorney’s decision not to issue indictments.  Cases are rarely perfect and often contain conflicting evidence.  As a result, the opportunity to present the entire case to a jury may be lost forever.  We also understand the criteria for taking a case to trial is higher than probable cause.

While it isn’t necessarily news that different prosecutors may come to different conclusions on whether charges should be pursued in a criminal court, or that there may be tension between prosecutors and investigators, the release of the Ramsey documents raises important questions regarding the role of grand juries and prosecutorial discretion:  Where the grand jury signs off on charges, but the lead prosecutor doesn’t agree, how can we ensure justice is done?  Are there further checks and balances that can be instituted?  What situations call for the removal of the secrecy of the grand jury?  Are there situations where public inquiries, rather than secretive grand juries, may be the best investigative technique?

With the use of local and statewide grand juries on the rise in Pennsylvania and other states across the country, these are all questions the government and criminal defense attorneys should be asking.

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