I can remember where I was when JonBenet Ramsey was killed, even though I was only eight years old. It was Christmas and I was staying with my grandmother in Armidale. There on the TV was a girl who looked like a Barbie doll, dressed up like a princess. She’d been murdered. If any news story was going to attract the attention of an eight-year-old child, it was this one.
As a teenager I watched the horrendous, low-budget dramatization of the unsolved JonBenet Ramsey case, ‘Perfect Murder Perfect Town.’ I loved it. With my cousins I speculated for hours – had an intruder broken into the house and murdered JonBenet or was it one of her own family? Would she have died at all if she hadn’t been a pageant queen? What was the significance of the pineapple in her stomach?
When I was in my final year of high school, child pornography offender John Mark Karr falsely confessed to the murder, and I followed the news as his claims were dismissed. That was ten years ago and I haven’t thought much about JonBenet Ramsay since. If she were alive today, she would be twenty-six, two years younger than I am. When I heard that CBS was creating a two-part documentary on the Ramsey case I was excited – as such an obvious member of the target audience I couldn’t be more surprised to report that when it finally aired this week, I found myself railing against the TV screen.
The recent trend towards true crime is a force to be reckoned with. Hit podcast Serial captivated an unprecedented audience in November 2014 – from celebrities to politicians, it seemed the whole world was trying to solve the 1999 murder of Baltimore high-schooler Hae Min Lee. Since then, HBO’s The Jinx, and Netflix’ Making a Murderer proved true crime could make for both critically acclaimed and popular television. On Sunday night, FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson swept up five well-deserved Emmys for its star-studded dramatization of ‘the trial of the century.’ ESPN’s OJ: Made in America documentary was released just two months after the FX dramatization and received similar acclaim.
If there’s an indicator that we’ve reached the true crime tipping point, CBS’ The Case of JonBenet Ramsey is it. A fan of the genre, I’d say my tolerance for deriving macabre entertainment from real life crimes is pretty high. That said, within the first few minutes of The Case of JonBenet Ramsey, the production was already creeping well beyond my comfort zone.
One of CBS’ biggest selling points for the series was the fact that they had built a full-scale reproduction of sections of the Ramsey family’s expansive Colorado home. The only practical use for this investment seems to have been two experiments. The first involved the show’s investigator hosts, Laura Richards and Jim Clemente, climbing in and out of the basement window in order to prove that an adult body would indeed destroy any spiderwebs stretching across the small window frame (this is then presented as conclusive evidence that no intruder entered the house – a web was found on the window). The second involved turning all the lights off and peering through the basement window to prove that an intruder could not see inside (the idea that an intruder may have previously visited the household during daylight hours is not suggested). Both of these experiments require only the basement window, the remainder of the house (completely reproduced, down to ornamentation and clutter) seems to have been built purely to send shivers down the audience’s spine at the expense of a murdered child. As expert guests are lead through the ‘house’ the hosts ask, ‘how does this feel?’ eliciting the obvious responses of ‘strange,’ and ‘eerie.’
More concerning than the reproduction of the house is a reproduction of the crime in which an actual ten year old child is asked to wield a metal torch at a skull wearing a blonde wig, to determine whether a child could have committed the murder. This particular scene, compared to a closing shot in which the hosts soberly place a wreath on JonBenet's grave, makes the sincerity of the production difficult to digest.
Much of the series is spent at a war room style table, at which a cohort of assembled experts pore over the case along with the investigating hosts. The various experts’ credentials are impressive – Dr. Henry Lee was the pathologist on the OJ Simpson trial, Jim Fitzgerald was the FBI Investigator for the Unabomber – and much time is spent highlighting this expertise and the notion that we should implicitly trust their opinions. In the war room they write on a glass pane rather than a traditional whiteboard, because these guys mean business.
It doesn’t take long to figure out where The Case of JonBenet Ramsey is headed, or that the production has a specific culprit in mind for the crime. The idea that an intruder may have committed the crime is discussed briefly and dismissed (there is no exploration whatsoever as to who such an intruder might have been) and as such the suspects are limited to JonBenet’s mother Patsy, father John, and nine-year-old brother Burke.
Patsy and John are dismissed as suspects because of the way they present themselves at press conferences (concrete evidence, of course), and the fact that there is no history of domestic violence (because domestic violence is always reported to police). This leaves Burke. Having nailed their suspect, the hosts conclude that Burke killed his sister by accident, and that the Ramsey parents covered up the crime in order to protect their only living child.
Even if we assume that CBS is correct, and Burke is the killer, no evidence is presented to suggest that the crime was an accident rather than intentional, and the show even goes so far as to suppose the specific circumstances of the crime – a fight over a piece of pineapple, because there was pineapple in the victim’s stomach – although this is clearly one of a million possible scenarios that could have occurred in the Ramsey house that night, based on the evidence as it stands.
Footage is played of nine-year-old Burke’s filmed interview with a child psychologist after his sister’s death. ‘The tone of it is completely off,’ comments Richards, ‘there is no appropriate emotion at all,’ says Clemente. Because if you want to know how all nine-year-olds act after the death of a sibling, ask former FBI agents.
The morning after watching The Case of JonBenet Ramsey I walked through Wynyard Station on my way to work. JonBenet’s face was all over the newsstands ‘Documentary points finger at brother Burke.’ I couldn’t help but wonder about the role of the true crime genre, and where we should draw the line at speculating about real lives (and deaths). All eyes are now on Burke Ramsey, whether they belong there or not.
Recent successes in the true crime genre have made a name for themselves by dealing with bigger issues than the case at hand. Making a Murderer has been criticised for bias in its defence of Stephen Avery – but regardless of where you stand on Avery’s guilt or innocence, the series provides a sobering look at the powerlessness of working class Americans against a dangerously flawed justice system. Making a Murderer forces us to consider a version of America we may not have seen before, and highlights the vulnerability of the stigmatised and undereducated. Serial similarly pokes holes in the justice system and draws attention to the falsely accused and incarcerated. The People vs. OJ Simpson is nuanced and illuminating, highlighting sexism and transforming the reputation of demonised prosecutor Marcia Clark (so much so that actress Sarah Paulson not only thanked Marcia Clark in her Emmy acceptance for the role, but also apologised on behalf of the public and brought Clark to the Emmys as her date), while at the same time drawing attention to the racial issues that raged throughout the trial and are incredibly resonant in light of the current climate of racism. In comparison, The Case of JonBenet Ramsey does nothing to further any conversation, it capitalises solely on an audience fascination with unsolved murder and the thrill of becoming armchair detectives.
Is there anything wrong with that fact? I’m not sure. The journalists behind Serial distanced themselves from the Case of Adnan Syed when legions of armchair detectives took to reddit following the podcast’s success. Although host Sarah Koenig and the team were honoured to receive a Peabody award for their work, they seemed uncomfortable with the notion of non-journalists joining the investigation so vocally. And yet it was armchair detectives who uncovered the evidence that has since led to a new trial for Adnan Syed. This is the digital era, and journalism has been democratised – we all have a voice and that is a good thing – but is it ok for CBS to rally those voices against Burke Ramsey? Many of The Case of JonBenet Ramsey's arguments are very convincing, and I agree there's a good chance they've got the right guy, but to present theories as fact (and fail to mention counter theories) seems reckless.
If we accept the assumption that Burke Ramsey killed his sister JonBenet by accident and his parents covered it up, Burke could not be charged with the crime because he was under ten at the time. His parents, on the other hand, could be charged for interference of justice (although Patsy Ramsay passed away in 2006). I wonder if this is the outcome CBS hopes to achieve. A brother’s life ruined due to an accident and a father imprisoned for protecting his child. While I do not mean to suggest that justice should not be served, or that the Ramsey’s should not be charged, I do think it would be a tragic end to a tragic story. The hosts’ claim to be seeking justice for JonBenet, but if their theory of the crime is correct, I’m not sure what that justice would look like. If the show was to address the complexity and tragedy of this question, it would have made for much more engaging viewing.
Ultimately I don’t know where the line is. I love to speculate with my friends over unsolved cases, and I enjoy true crime. It’s thrilling, it’s fascinating, and it can challenge assumptions about the legal system, ethics, and society. Should it have to raise these issues? I’m not sure, but wherever the line is, I know The Case of JonBenet Ramsey crossed it.
Images courtesy of CBS.com