Monday, January 28, 2013

When DAs Attack

An interesting little legal factoid came out over the weekend: a grand jury that sat in 1999 in the Jon Benet Ramsey murder had handed up an indictment against the parents, but the DA refused to pursue the case:

On a brilliantly clear autumn day more than 13 years ago, Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter stepped to the podium before an anxious media horde to announce that the grand jury investigation into the death of JonBenet Ramsey had come to an end.

"I and my prosecution task force believe we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant a filing of charges against anyone who has been investigated at this time," Hunter told the reporters assembled outside the Boulder County Justice Center on Oct. 13, 1999.

Yet multiple sources, including members of the grand jury, have now confirmed to the Daily Camera what Hunter did not say that day: The grand jury voted to indict both John and Patsy Ramsey on charges of child abuse resulting

The Daily Camera has confirmed that the grand jury investigating the death of JonBenet Ramsey voted to indict John and Patsy Ramsey on charges of child abuse resulting in death but then-District Attorney Alex Hunter refused to sign the indictment and prosecute the case, believing he could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
This story has been confirmed by others in the DA's office from that era.
It's a conundrum. The typical way a prosecutor will handle a situation like this is to file the indictment with the court, then asked the charges be dismissed, but I'm not sure Hunter's way in this particular case was not the better one.
As has been famously asserted elsewhere, a good prosecutor can get a ham sandwich indicted. The grand jury process is about leading a group of people down a primrose path and then asking whether they agree with the evidence as presented. And it only takes a majority vote. The trouble is, in popular canon a grand jury indictment is -- like an arrest -- an automatic presumption that the now-defendant must have done something wrong, else why would he or she be on trial?
True, conviction still requires a jury trial (or one in front of a judge), but so many people assume that anyone who makes it that far who is found innocent, barring another indictment or confession, somehow got off.
It's a warped society we live in where the law states innocent until proven guilty, but society says "Nope. Guilty."
As it turns out, subsequent DNA analysis more than a decade after the murder suggests that no one in the Ramsey family had any direct involvement in Jon Benet's death. In other words, handing up the indictment to the court would have essentially convicted, in society's mind, people who had no direct evidence linking them to the crime and indeed, were exonerated by later evidence (altho there's some question about even that evidence.)
Too, the charges the jury handed up were kind of "catch-all" in that they charged the Ramseys with basically fatally endangering the welfare of a child, which in practice could cover anything from actually participating in her murder to having knowledge of it but not stopping it.
Had Hunter taken it to a judge and then dismissed it, several possible bad outcomes occur to me, from vigilantes trying to "take out" the Ramseys to their fleeing the country to new evidence being found that would implicate them, but a defense of double jeopardy could be raised.
Hunter may have been smart to let them walk at that time, in the hopes they'd slip up later.
Which they apparently haven't.
Sadly, I doubt this is the last we'll hear of this case.