In Pursuit of Justice? The Decision to Drop The Case Against John Mark Karr, For the Murder of JonBenet Ramsey

By JONNA SPILBOR

Friday, Sep. 01, 2006

On Monday, August 28, John Mark Karr was cleared in the 1996 murder of six-year-old child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey -- a crime he'd recently, and repeatedly, insisted he'd committed.

That day, Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy announced she will not be filing charges against Karr after all. And the next day, in a televised press conference, Lacy explained,"I believe [Karr] didn't do it," primarily because "[Karr's] DNA does not match that found in the victim's blood in her underwear." In the motion to quash Karr's arrest warrant, Lacy gave another reason she did not believe Karr was the perpetrator: "[N]o evidence has developed, other than his own repeated admissions, to place Mr. Karr at the scene of the crime" - that is, inside the Ramseys' Colorado home, where JonBenet's body was found.

Karr still faces misdemeanor charges of possessing child pornography in California; in 2001, after serving six months in jail before trial, Karr disappeared. But the murder case against him seems to have fallen apart.

In truth, as I will explain, that case was missing most of its nuts and bolts to begin with. It was, in a word, a hoax. And a pretty transparent one at that.

So why was Karr so swiftly arrested and transported back the United States from Thailand, only to be released by Colorado authorities once he got here? Was the Boulder District Attorney truly in pursuit of justice? Or simply in pursuit?

The Case Against Karr: Why It Was Never There to Begin With

Karr described how he'd supposedly killed JonBenet in a series of emails and recorded phone calls. His claims were beyond chilling and utterly vile. For example, Karr spoke of performing oral sex on the child, and tasting her blood after causing her vagina to bleed. Karr also claimed he "loved" the child beauty queen as if she were his long lost high school sweetheart. "JonBenet, my love, my life" began one such missive.

No wonder that, once Mary Lacy caught wind of Karr's deviant diary, her ears perked up - and rightly so, at least initially.

Karr was eventually located in Bangkok, Thailand, and tracked by U.S. law enforcement personnel for a short while.

In the meantime, back in Colorado, investigators were busy trying to verify details provided by Karr about his relationship with the Ramseys, and about the night of JonBenet's murder. Was this guy for real? Or was his "confession" yet another among the roughly two hundred made over the last ten years that had turned out to be false?

Karr's story, quite quickly, proved to be full of holes. He claimed to have attended a party at the Ramsey household. But that party never took place. John Ramsey, JonBenet's father, quickly told cops he had never heard of Karr. Meanwhile, Karr's own family members -- many of them estranged from him, and thus with less reason to lie to protect him -- provided investigators with credible alibi evidence. They said Karr had never missed a Christmas with the family, and that in 1996, the family celebrated Christmas in Alabama - not Colorado.

There was a "ransom note" written in JonBenet's case - that is, a note asking for a ransom, though it seems clear JonBenet was already dead when it was written. There was no evidence to connect Karr to the note - no handwriting match - and there was evidence to suggest he hadn't written it: It was, in essence, a hate letter directed to John Ramsey - a direct contrast to the "love letters" penned by Karr about JonBenet. The letter, then, did not seem like Karr's style.

There was more evidence, too, that Karr's "murder" was in his mind alone: He had no violent or sexual criminal history. Indeed, his only criminal history was that open misdemeanor child pornography case in California. So if Karr did kill JonBenet, the murder would have come almost out of the blue, and wouldn't have been followed up by any similar activity - at least, any for which Karr was caught.

In short, Karr was a creep who cried wolf.

But for fifteen minutes, Karr fooled the world. Well, maybe not the whole world, just the media. Okay, maybe not the media, more like a small group of ice fishermen floating without electricity somewhere off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? The only people who bought Karr's story, were those working in the Boulder District Attorney's office. But why?

Why Did the Prosecutors' Office Act When There Was No Case?

Despite the lack of corroborative evidence, D.A. Lacy quickly issued an arrest warrant, held a press conference to alert the world that Karr would soon be coming to a Colorado courthouse, and purchased the confessed killer a one-way ticket to the United States to face charges of murder, sexual assault, and kidnapping. Karr was already detained in Thailand, with no chance he would flee. What was the rush?

The prosecutor claims she needed to get Karr to the U.S. in order to get an accurate DNA swab. But she could have gotten a proper DNA test (that is, a clean buccal swab) in Thailand, had she followed international warrant procedures. It would have taken longer, yes, but in a ten-year-old murder case with a suspect whose confessions are, well, suspect, what's the rush?

Surely a seasoned prosecutor knows uncorroborated confessions are worthless. The law in virtually every state recognizes this, as the Supreme Court held in the 1954 case of Smith v. United States -- long before Karr was born -- that a defendant's confession must be corroborated in order to introduce that confession against the defendant, and to convict the defendant on the basis of that confession. Otherwise, our society might see innocent people falsely confessing to unsolved crimes for a number of reasons -- not the least of which being the payoff provided by the true culprits.

Karr cited one additional reason for bringing Karr to Colorado, though: the former teacher's predilection for children.

D.A. Lacy said Karr, while under surveillance in Bangkok, was seen paying unusual attention to a 5-year-old schoolgirl. While quickly admitting he committed no crime with respect to this - or any -- child in Thailand, she called the observation a "turning point for everyone."

"We felt we could not ignore this," said Lacy. Also according to her, a forensic psychologist told authorities Karr "was dangerous," and perhaps "escalating" toward an assault or worse.

And this, in my opinion, is where Lacy crossed the line.

We live in the real world, not "Minority Report" - the Tom Cruise film, based on a Philip K. Dick novel, in which people are arrested when a trio of psychics project that they will commit a crime in the future.

Here and now, in 2006, we simply cannot arrest people for crimes they are merely likely to commit. Nor do prosecutors possess some unique ability to mind-read. Yet, it appears that belief in Karr's propensities, and her and her experts' predictive abilities, is precisely what prompted Mary Lacy to give in to the hoax. And this was her mistake.

What We'll End Up With: A Pedophile, Free, Living in the United States

Karr -- who admits to being sexually attracted to little girls -- could be a child molester in the making. Could be: Remember, he has no record except the child porn misdemeanor. He's a risk - but he cannot, and should not, be jailed for being a risk.

Still, by delivering him to us, the prosecutor has made Karr our problem. Thanks a lot. Sure, he might have been deported from Thailand back to the U.S. eventually, but not on our dime - not to mention on our fried prawns and champagne.

Soon, Karr will be released into our midst, dangerous as a dropped test tube full of anthrax. Maybe he'll hurt someone, and maybe he won't. Only time will tell.

The Missing Fraud Charges

It turns out, unfortunately, that Karr won't even be prosecuted for lying about his involvement in the crime. This, according to D.A. Lacy, is because he never lied to American law enforcement. He only lied to the media and to his email pen-pal -- filmmaker and professor Michael Tracy.

One would think, however, that even without charges of perjury or false statements to the government, charges for criminal fraud might be able to be filed. Karr's lies were intentional, repeated, and had costs. Surely, the D.A.'s Office ought to at least consider and research the possibility of fraud charges. Karr cannot be incarcerated for what he might do. But he should, if possible, be incarcerated, for what he did do: Through intentional, repeated lies, he created a media circus that drained resources and attention away from real crimes and criminals, as well as other pressing matters of importance.

In the end, the case that came in like a lion, is quickly leaving like a lamb. Meanwhile, all we cold-case watchers can do, is wait for the next big break. Who knows, maybe one day soon, someone will confess to being Nicole Brown Simpson's real killer. I hear he's still out there.


Jonna M. Spilbor is an attorney and legal analyst on "Kendall's Court", airing Sundays on Fox News Channel's Weekend Live with Brian Wilson. She is also a frequent guest commentator on MSNBC, Court-TV and other television news networks, where she has covered many of the nation's high-profile criminal trials. In the courtroom, she has handled hundreds of cases as a criminal defense attorney, and also served in the San Diego City Attorney's Office, Criminal Division, and the Office of the United States Attorney in the Drug Task Force and Appellate units. In 1998, she earned certification as a Court Appointed Special Advocate with the San Diego Juvenile Court. She is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, where she was a member of the Law Review.

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