One of the best ways to learn about true crime is through documentaries. This medium allows for narration, videos and images, testimonials and interviews with people involved to all be compiled in one place. However, with editing and trying to get as many details of a case as possible into a two-hour film or maybe a six-hour miniseries, there is the danger of constructing a reality that isn’t all true.
For example, the death of JonBenét Ramsey. The two-part special CBS did for the twentieth anniversary of her murder was heavily criticized for how the team of specialists came to their conclusion that JonBenét’s brother, Burke, was guilty of her murder. This is not a unique conclusion; many have speculated the involvement of the Ramsey family members in her death over the last twenty years.
The mediatization of JonBenét’s death manipulates facts, even if the person covering the tragedy is trying their best to represent it accurately. The misrepresentation in the case of JonBenét started when news first broke of her murder. The photos shown on the news were of her all dolled up in her pageant outfits, with makeup and dyed hair. She appeared to be much older than six years old and was uncomfortably sexualized.
In CBS’ piece, “The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey,” one of the key pieces of evidence was the original 911 call placed by Patsy Ramsey. The phrasing of the call was bizarre in itself and the linguistics have been picked apart by professionals. But at the end of the call, there are a few seconds of muffled voices between Patsy’s last words to the 911 operator and the end of the call. The investigative team felt that whatever is being said in the background of those few seconds before Patsy hung up the phone was crucial to their investigation, so they attempted to decode it by enhancing the audio with techniques that were not available in the 1990s.
In doing this, they came to a conclusion that sounded like a complete reach. It was what they wanted to hear in order to raise the stakes and make the show more dramatic. One of the investigator listened to an enhanced audio segment that sounded like a whisk against a metal bowl and said, “Oh, wow. I think I hear a man say, ‘We’re not speaking to you.’” Another investigator agrees with him immediately. In my opinion, this conclusion is not legitimate, but I’ll let you watch for yourself.
The show also did a recreation of the Ramsey’s house, which was a total gimmick and allowed them to jump to conclusions about tiny things. While they claimed there could be hidden clues in the house, any hidden clues that existed at the time of the murder were probably hidden in photos and video footage as well, making this recreation nothing more than a museum staging. It is a hyperreality, a creation somewhere between the truth and fiction.
The only tangible evidence from a crime scene that can be trusted is evidence taken at the time of the crime. Anything else is speculation. Even if the recreated house looks “picture perfect” when compared to crime scene photos and videos, the problem is that it does not contain the DNA evidence. While the simulation came from a place of genuine determination to solve this case, all the reproduction did was help the CBS investigators tip the scales in their favor. We also have to remember that the original crime scene was handled poorly and that the evidence taken the day after JonBenét’s body was found was barely reliable.
Georgia Hardstark, one of the hosts of my favorite podcast, My Favorite Murder, wrote two articles for Elle.com about “The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey.” In her second one, she expressed frustration at the stretches made by the investigators in order to fit the suspect they already favored.
“Whenever there is a conclusion that ignores important details in order to point to one scenario in a case that has a lot of possible theories, it invalidates that scenario. It is extremely frustrating to me,” Hardstark wrote. “I’m sure the producers needed some sort of wrapped up package to present at the end of the series, but eventually the rest of the evidence is going to invalidate all the correct evidence that was presented by the show experts.”
As someone who has researched the case extensively and covered it on her podcast, Hardstark has tried to look at the case from every possible angle. She didn’t feel that CBS was completely unbiased in their investigation. She started her second article by saying:
“It’s pretty clear from this first episode that the show is going with the theory that JonBenét’s brother Burke did it, and that their parents covered it up—which, if I’m being honest, is my favored theory as well. But there’s still so much evidence to explain away before one can confidently buy that story, which The Case of has failed to do as of yet.”
Was Burke Ramsey responsible for the death of his sister? We’ll never truly know. But the Ramsey family lawyer is suing CBS over the claims made on the show.