Who Killed JonBenet?

Can forensic psychology shed some light on unsolved homicide cases?

Posted Jan 18, 2017

Google Images/Polaris
Source: Google Images/Polaris

The bizarre death of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey back in 1996 remains a major unsolved mystery today. How might forensic psychology possibly contribute to finally resolving this now totally "cold" case? Let us take a careful look back at what happened on that frosty and fateful Christmas night in the Ramsey household, attempting to more clearly discern why little JonBenet was seemingly brutally murdered and who might have been motivated to commit such an evil deed. Over the course of the next several postings, we will together closely examine the detailed history of this case from the perspective of forensic criminal psychology.

Before proceeding, it must, in fairness, be explicitly stated that no charges have ever been formally filed against the Ramseys. John, Patsy, and Burke Ramsey have always adamantly professed their innocence and denied any involvement in JonBenet's death. In fact, in 2008, based on the results of the most recent "touch" DNA testing, the Ramsey family was publicly and officially exonerated by then Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy of any complicity or wrongdoing in the death of JonBenet, based mainly on the discovery, according to Lacy, of the DNA of an "unknown male" on key articles of JonBenet's bedclothing. (See Lacy's official letter to John Ramsey here.) However, some investigators still vehemently dispute these scientific findings as inconclusive, and deem her apologetic letter of exoneration inappropriate and "not legally binding." And there are apparently still no alternative suspects at this point, some 200 having already reportedly been investigated and cleared. (There is in this regard some similarity to another infamous case, the bloody murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1989, for which O.J. Simpson was exonerated by the criminal trial but still believed by many, including a jury in the subsequent civil case, to be responsible. See my prior post.) The JonBenet Ramsey case is stone cold. Seemingly the perfect crime. So what do we know, twenty years down the line, regarding the possible identity and motivation of the perpetrator(s) of this gruesome evil deed?

The first thing we want to do is to put away any assumptions, preconceptions or biases, to approach the case by consciously assuming a phenomenological stance, which means simply to re-examine it without presupposition, presumption or prejudice. Taking a deliberately naive, new, and dispassionate look at it with fresh, unfettered eyes. This is something I always tried to do when conducting forensic evaluations of  defendants for the criminal courts in California. It means placing what we know, or at least what we think we know, about a defendant or, for instance, this particular high-profile criminal case, temporarily aside, and looking at what actually took place in light of the currently available facts.

All we really know for certain is that an adorable little blonde girl, who had become a local celebrity because she occasionally competed enthusiastically in beauty pageants for children, was found dead in the basement of her luxurious family home. She had apparently been sadistically tortured by the perpetrator(s), possibly sexually assaulted, and, ultimately, killed. The exact time of her death is not clear; nor are the causes of the injuries from which she died, which included a massive eight-inch skull fracture and a tightened noose around her neck causing strangulation and asphyxiation, the official cause of death. In addition, and still not explained, there were two small, distinct dark spots on her body that some investigators believe to have been caused by a stun gun. The seemingly hastily made ligature fastened tightly around her neck was comprised of a woven white piece of cord, looking similar to a sneaker shoelace, attached to a perhaps six-inch fragment of fashioned wood, which, when turned or twisted, tightened the noose with which she was strangled. JonBenet's hands were tightly bound together behind her head, and a piece of black duct tape covered her mouth, according to her father.

Indeed, JonBenet's cold and lifeless body, reportedly already stiff with rigor mortis—suggesting she had been dead for at least 4 hours or more—was reportedly discovered by her father in the spacious home's hidden basement wine cellar during the late morning/early afternoon of December 26th. John Ramsey states that he immediately, upon searching the house a second time and finding her body lying on the basement floor covered up by a blanket, removed the duct tape from her mouth and tried unsuccessfully to unbind her hands before carrying her upstairs in his arms. According to the police laboratory, the DNA of an unknown male was found on two different articles of JonBenet's clothing. Moreover, there was, according to news reports, some physiological evidence discovered during the autopsy that suggested to examiners the presence of sexual abuse: specifically, evidence of vaginal trauma and having been possibly sodomized with a foreign object, though these findings are subject to interpretation. One thing is certain and incontrovertible: JonBenet did not die of natural causes. Whether she was deliberately tortured and murdered or was the tragic victim of an accidental death and subsequent cover up, as the Boulder police long suspected, is still hotly debated. How did she die, who killed her, and why?

Earlier that morning, prior to her body being found by John, JonBenet's mother, Patsy, herself a former beauty queen, reported having stumbled upon a three-page ransom note on the stairs leading down from her second floor bedroom. The oddly worded, roughly handwritten note makes reference to wanting precisely $118,000.00 for JonBenet's return, lest she be "beheaded." According to police, it was written on pages torn from Patsy"s own personal note pad, where they found physical impressions of what they believed to be a practice note or perhaps one that was started and stopped, and the writing—especially when compared side-by-side to one sample done in her non-dominant left hand—reportedly bore some resemblance to Patsy's. In addition, the garotte-like ligature was fashioned, say the police, with a length of cord and a piece of broken wooden paint brush handle apparently taken from Patsy's art supplies, very close to where the body was found. Certainly, if there was an intruder, as the Ramseys have consistently claimed, he or she could have made use of Patsy's pad and art supplies during the night while the family slept. But, for that matter, so could have another family member.

According to unconfirmed sources, a neighbor reported having heard a high-pitched scream in the vicinity of the Ramsey home around midnight that night. Such a scream from within the Ramsey household and audible from outside would almost certainly have woken and alerted the family. But if JonBenet was killed some time between midnight, after allegedly being put to bed by her parents on Christmas night, and the next morning by the supposed kidnapper(s), what was the point of them taking the time and trouble to compose a detailed ransom note and leaving it for someone to discover on the stairs? In the rambling letter, the author(s), identifying themselves as a "foreign faction," demanded ransom money and warned against notifying authorities if the parents hoped to ever see their beloved daughter again, concluding with the cryptic signature: VICTORY! SBTC

The strange ransom note and signature, as well as some other aspects of the Ramsey case, are reminiscent of another sensational kidnapping case occurring in 1932, in which the 18-month-old son of celebrated cross-Atlantic flyer Charles Lindbergh was abducted from the home during the night. A poorly handwritten and very cryptically signed ransom note was left for the family. (See the details of this infamous case here.) The ransom money was delivered as demanded, but the baby was never seen alive again. His battered body was discovered in a wooded area of a nearby town two months later, having suffered from a massive skull fracture. Subsequent to an extensive investigation, a suspect, Richard Hauptman, was arrested, prosecuted, convicted of the heinous crime, and eventually executed, though he always proclaimed his innocence. Some continue to speculate on who truly committed this kidnapping and killing to this day.

Did the original plan of kidnapping JonBenet, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, for ransom money go awry for some reason, resulting in her murder instead? Could the alleged kidnapper(s), who said they would call the Ramseys by 10:00 AM that morning after Christmas but never did, have somehow believed that her body would not be found there in the basement? Or was there never any serious intention of extorting ransom money from the Ramseys at all? Could the unusually long ransom note have been merely another means of cruelly tormenting and torturing them as JonBenet had been cruelly tortured? Was this evil deed the work of a sadistic psychopathic pedophile? Was the motivation merely to inflict the greatest possible pain and suffering upon the Ramsey family? And, if so, why the Ramseys? Or was the note deliberately designed to deflect suspicion away from the actual perpetrator?

This single concrete piece of evidence, the ransom note, seems absolutely key to solving the case. But it is so enigmatic. Was it, as Boulder police long suspected, penned by Patsy Ramsey herself? If so, why? And if not, who did write and leave it to be found? Probably not nine-year-old Burke, though that possibility cannot necessarily be ruled out in my opinion. (Whether Burke was ever considered by investigators as being the possible author is not clear to me.) And certainly not JonBenet herself. Nor, according to police investigators, was John Ramsey the likely author. (Was it dusted for fingerprints?) Whether the contents and style of this letter have previously been subjected to psychological analysis is not known to me, but it would seem to potentially provide a wealth of information about the psychology of its author(s), something we will seriously consider in Part 2 of this series.

If we rule out the family members as writing the rambling ransom note, which has officially already occurred in effect by dint of their formal and controversial exoneration, it becomes clear that if John, Patsy, or Burke did not create the note, someone else (or possibly more than one person) was inside the home that night, opportunistically lurking in the darkness, and responsible for both the ransom note and the grotesque killing of JonBenet. Someone sufficiently cruel, hateful, violent and sadistic to have committed such an atrocious crime. Someone powerfully motivated to brazenly take the risk of doing so and of possibly being caught. Which begs the following questions: What type of person would most likely perpetrate such a crime? Were they motivated by money? Sex? Rage? Jealousy? Or resentment toward the very affluent and influential Ramsey family? Or animosity toward JonBenet in particular? Did John or Patsy Ramsey have enemies? If someone wanted to hurt John and Patsy, this would surely be one extreme way to do so. If JonBenet Ramsey was deliberately and brutally murdered by an intruder(s), the perpetrator(s) must have been driven or compelled to commit this evil deed by something very powerful indeed. Could the killing have happened, counter to the original plan, due to fear of being discovered when JonBenet cried out around midnight? Though the Boulder police department reportedly investigated and cleared hundreds of potential suspects in this case, either the perpetrator was somehow mistakenly eliminated as a suspect by investigators or never identified and investigated at all.

Or, could the killer's true intention all along have been simply to permanently silence the child, a motive perhaps symbolized and suggested by the duct tape allegedly found over her mouth by her father, John, whom some speculated may have been sexually abusing his daughter, conjecture both he and JonBenet's pediatrician dismiss unequivocally. Could JonBenet, these theorists wondered, have been killed to keep this sordid secret from ever being exposed? Curiously, this evidentiary detail of the case is eerily reminiscent of the duct tape found on the badly decomposed corpse of Casey Anthony's 4-year-old daughter, Caylee. According to her prosecutors during the trial, Casey Anthony (now found not guilty, but still believed responsible by some for Caylee's death) presumably killed her daughter partly because she wanted to be free to live a different, freer lifestyle or possibly covered up her accidental death. Casey told investigators that her daughter had been kidnapped by a mysterious nanny who evidently never existed. (See my prior posts.) In the case of Susan Smith (now convicted), the then twenty-three-year-old mother drowned her two young children (both about JonBenet and Caylee's same age) by driving her car into a lake with the children restrained by their seat belts from escaping, presumably so that she could be with her new boyfriend. Prior to eventually confessing, Smith blamed the murders on a phantom carjacker. Smith had reportedly been severely emotionally damaged during childhood, sexually abused, was suicidally depressed, and may have suffered from some sort of personality disorder. Extremely immature, narcissistic individuals (see my prior post) can have great difficulty placing their own selfish needs secondary to those of their children. Yet another murderous mother, Andrea Yates (now found not guilty by reason of insanity and diagnosed as suffering from postpartum depression and psychosis), drowned her five children one-by-one in a bathtub, claiming she did this evil deed to keep them from being damned and tormented by Satan as she felt she had been. (See my prior post.)

Statistically speaking, the likeliest culprits when a child dies in the home would be one or both parents, which is the main reason why the authorities focused so intensively on the Ramseys from day one. Filicide—defined as the killing of a child by his or her parentis a deeply disturbing but very real phenomenon. According to Department of Justice statistics, between 1976 and 1997, which includes the year of JonBenet's death, nearly 11,000 children like her were killed by their parents or step-parents. The motives for filicide vary, from so-called "altruistic" filicide or supposedly well-intentioned mercy-killing of sick and suffering offspring, to "accidental" filicide during severe child abuse or neglect, to angry retribution against an offending spouse as in the ancient Greek tragedy Medea, to the overwhelmed or self-serving solution of killing unwanted, demanding, cumbersome, socially inconvenient children, to the murderous acting out of the paranoid delusions and command hallucinations of madness.

Could someone like Patsy Ramsey, who succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2006, have, as some still insist, intentionally or unintentionally killed her daughter? Perhaps. But, as in other infamous cases of filicide, there would need to have been some overwhelmingly compelling motivation or compulsion to do so in order to overcome the innate maternal instinct to protect and defend her offspring from any and all harm. From all reports, Patsy was a very loving, caring and devoted mother to JonBenet. What could possibly drive a loving mother like this to commit such a reprehensible crime? Police hypothesized early on that she may have that night flown into a fit of rage regarding JonBenet's chronic bedwetting, fatally injuring her daughter accidentally, and then, in a total panic, desperately covering it up by concocting the far-fetched kidnapping story, composing the ransom note, and staging the gruesome murder. Presumably, this would have had to happen with her husband's knowledge and full complicity, motivated perhaps by his strong desire to protect his wife, their marriage, and their reputation. (Though it may hypothetically be possible for this all to have taken place during the night when both John and Burke were deeply asleep and unaware, that scenario seems rather improbable.)

The most likely explanation for deliberate infanticide or filicide being committed by a mother like Patsy Ramsey, in my view, would be the presence of severe postpartum depression, but there is no publicly known psychiatric history of this (or at least none known to me). Nor is there any information suggesting the presence of profound depression after JonBenet's brother, Burke, was born nine years prior. And it had been six years since she gave birth to JonBenet, which, if she had been suffering from prolonged depression and possible psychosis, it would likely have been diagnosed and treated at some point. Whether either Patsy or John have any previous history of mental health treatment whatsoever is not known to me. However, there apparently were several psychiatric interviews of Patsy Ramsey subsequent to JonBenet's death which, according to then District Attorney Mary Lacy, revealed no signs of psychopathy, pathological jealousy or envy of her daughter, or violent tendencies in general. Absent any prior psychiatric history of psychopathy, major depressive disorder, postpartum depression, psychosis or any other significant mental disorder, other possible diagnoses I would, as a forensic psychologist, want to rule out in evaluating a defendant in such a case would include substance intoxication, acute psychotic or manic episode, borderline personality disorder, severe obsessive compulsive disorder, and dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder), in which one repressed shadowy part of the personality temporarily takes over, not unlike what tragically occurs in Robert Louis Stevenson's famous fictional tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (see my prior posts).

Despite having been officially eliminated (but not legally tried and acquitted) as a suspect, since the early days and as recently as last year, in a CBS documentary on the JonBenet Ramsey case, there are those, including famed forensic pathologist Werner Spitz, who hypothesize, despite his being long ago officially ruled out as a suspect, that Burke, now 29, killed his sister. There are unconfirmed reports, for example, of a "family friend," who claims that Burke as a boy had a terrible temper, and physically struck his sister, JonBenet, in the head with a golf club about eighteen months prior to her death. Promoters of this theory believe that Burke may have been jealous of JonBenet, perhaps suffering from sibling rivalry, that he became enraged with her that night for some minor reason, and either intentionally or accidentally killed her. Appalled, horrified, in shock and terrified of losing Burke too, the Ramseys, these individuals suggest, deliberately and hastily created an elaborate (and effective) cover up to protect Burke from suspicion and prosecution. This theory requires that we accept two premises: first, that Burke was capable of committing the killing; and second, that his parents could have concocted the ransom note, and, as part of their story, further hideously mutilated and defiled their own daughter's now dead body in order to save their son from prosecution for homicide. And that they did all this on the spur of the moment, without hesitation or time for planning, while grieving the shattering loss of their daughter.

Regarding the second premise, I find it strains credulity that these two parents would react in such a spontaneous, calculating, coordinated and criminal fashion. Could a nine-year-old boy hypothetically commit a vicious evil deed like this? To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, the innocence of children is due largely to weakness of limb. Children, from infancy on, are subject to passionate feelings not only of sexuality, but of jealousy, rage, resentment, and murderous impulses toward siblings, and even parents. And children often have difficulty controlling these emotions, sometimes leading to a destructive acting out of these violent impulses. A child with psychopathic proclivities, one who might be diagnosed as manifesting symptoms of Conduct Disorder, for instance, would, I believe, be capable of committing a crime such as this—including the crushing blow to the head, the possible use of a stun gun (was a such a stun gun ever found in the home?), the slow and torturous strangulation by garrote, and the obscene sexual violation. Indeed, by definition, according to the American Psychiatric Association, the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder (see my prior post) in adults requires a history of Conduct Disorder starting prior to the age of 15, and the presence of a "pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence." These antisocial behaviors commonly include "aggressive conduct that causes or threatens physical harm to other people or animals." This cruelty can take the form of torturing insects or animals for pleasure. Such children or adolescents "often initiate aggressive behavior and react aggressively to others. They may display bullying, threatening, or intimidating behavior, start fights, exhibit physical cruelty, and use potentially deadly weapons (e.g., a bat, brick, broken bottle, knife, or gun)." But that degree of aberration in a boy of nine would, fortunately for us all, be relatively rare, though studies suggest that the incidence of Conduct Disorder is on the rise, occurring in anywhere from 1-10 percent of the general population, mainly in males. (See my prior post.) And there would likely be some significant history of serious behavioral problems at both school and home, prior and subsequent to the crime. Whether this can be said of Burke is questionable based on the available information. Much less unusual would be a scenario in which one sibling becomes enraged with the other over some seemingly trivial event, suddenly lashing out angrily and violently (though not necessarily murderously): for example, impulsively striking the victim forcefully over the head with some handy heavy object, occasionally resulting in his or her serious injury or death.

In addition to the controversial DNA evidence, currently there are at least two seemingly significant clues that seem to lend support to the intruder theory. The suitcase that was found sitting below the unlocked and open basement window in the room where JonBenet's body was discovered was said to not belong there by John Ramsey. Its position suggests the possibility that it was purposely placed below the window and used to step up on in order to exit the room through the window. And, according to ex-Boulder DA Mary Lacy, who has officially ruled out any member of the Ramsey family as suspects and was taken through the home a few days after JonBenet's body was found, there was an obvious and unmistakable impression in the carpet outside of JonBenet's bedroom, a so-called "butt print," which she concludes was left by the intruder: "Whoever did this sat outside of her room and waited until everyone was asleep to kill her." Who could that have been? Or might that impression in the carpeting have a more innocent explanation?

I have tried here in Part 1 of this series of posts to succinctly and accurately gather and summarize some of the publicly known facts to date gleaned from a review of various media and news sources, as well as prior and current speculative theories about this case, to provide readers who may be unfamiliar with it an overview for further exploration and discussion. There are numerous other theories and details not noted here, some of which will be explored later. Clearly, there are still, twenty years since the crime was committed, more questions than answers, some of which we will be further examining. Let me know your own thoughts, theories, speculations and responses to mine regarding this tragic and very mysterious unsolved case in your comments and questions. I will do my best to include, consider, and address them in Part 2.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). DSM-5. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing.