CBS' JonBenét Ramsey Documentary Made Its Point — in Ghastly Fashion

Werner Spitz, Jim Clemente, Laura Richards and a 10-year-old boy who's about to thrill-kill a horror movie prop
Werner Spitz, Jim Clemente, Laura Richards and a 10-year-old boy who's about to thrill-kill a horror movie prop

In the realm of true-crime documentary, there's a fine line between attempting in earnest to uncover the truth and setting out with the agenda of advancing a preconceived belief.

But, frankly, "documentary" seems like the wrong word to describe CBS' two-part televised investigation into JonBenét Ramsey's 1996 murder, called simply The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey. (Will there be more The Case ofs? Based on the ratings, probably.) Led by investigators-slash-hosts Laura Richards and Jim Clemente, the two-part program, which assembled a panel of veteran experts in forensics, DNA, handwriting, etc., to reanalyze the long-unsolved case, felt like a ham-fisted hybrid of documentary, newsmagazine and reality show, replete with music cues straight out of something like Kitchen Nightmares. Richards is a British criminal behavioral analyst and victims advocate and Clemente is a retired FBI criminal profiler; both, according to their respective websites, appear somewhat regularly as experts on TV.

In case you've managed to completely avoid contact with the covers of tabloid magazines for the past 20 years, JonBenét Ramsey was the 6-year-old Boulder, Colorado, beauty queen who was found dead in her family's basement the day after Christmas in 1996; it was initially believed that she'd been kidnapped because of the lengthy, extremely suspect ransom note found at the scene. 

According to The Case of's rehashing of events, the Ramseys were cagey from the get-go, refusing adequate access to their home — even though, ostensibly, they'd want to do everything in their power to facilitate a successful investigation. They didn't submit to be interviewed by police until months later, and were even provided with police reports in advance. Still, the Ramsey family, including JonBenét's brother, Burke, was cleared of suspicion (at least formally) by Boulder district attorney Alex Hunter in 1999, who continued to insist to the community that an intruder was responsible. 

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For true-crime buffs, Burke Ramsey, who was just shy of 10 years old at the time, has long been a favorite suspect, and, without much beating around the bush, it's apparent that The Case of is looking in his direction as well. In the first hour of Sunday night's episode, there was a bit of tiptoeing to establish (convincingly or not) that three voices can be heard during the final seconds of Patsy's frantic 911 call. Then they took us inside a warehouse space where the investigators — and a shitload of overworked PAs — meticulously re-created the Ramsey home, from the ivy wallpaper to the Maglite flashlight on the counter that forensic pathologist Werner Spitz believes was used as the murder weapon, based on the size and shape of a crack in JonBenét's skull. 

In the second half of the first installment, Richards and Clemente moved on to establishing that the fatal blow with the flashlight could have been delivered by someone who didn't necessarily have the strength of a man — you know, someone like a 10-year-old boy. To demonstrate this, they created a horror-movie-ready simulation device — a skull sheathed in pig skin and wearing a garish blond wig — and invited an actual 10-year-old boy to come smash it with a flashlight. Whether or not it proved the investigators' point (they seem to think it did), it was one of the most ghastly things I've ever seen on television. A Facebook friend said it reminded him of "one of those sleazy In Search of Ancient Aliens shows" — except, of course, this show was about a Modern-Day Dead Little Girl.

Part two was somewhat less exploitative but still had the discomfiting sheen of a product made to be easily consumed by the masses without much muss, fuss or thought, right down to the roundtable discussion during which all the experts unanimously state that they believe it's plausible that Burke was the perpetrator, and his parents were complicit in a cover-up. To the program's credit, it's a good theory. There's evidence Burke had previously hit JonBenét in the face with a golf club; police reportedly discovered his feces smeared on a box of chocolates she got for Christmas; and no one can seem to explain, least of all a fidgety Burke, why when he heard his mother "going psycho" downstairs, he simply stayed in his bedroom (in old interview footage he said he just assumed JonBenét was missing and that someone would come to his room and tell him about it later in the day).

Werner Spitz asked a compelling question of his fellow investigators in the program's final moments, about four hours too late: "What do you expect to accomplish?" Burke, even if he were guilty, was too young to be convicted of murder from the start; mom Patsy Ramsey died of cancer years ago; and there has to be a statute of limitations that would prevent father John Ramsey from being charged as an accessory at this point. Richards, who wraps up the show by placing flowers on JonBenét's grave — eye roll — talks repeatedly about how the actual little girl was lost in the shuffle in her own murder investigation.

Was that really any different here?  

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