Thursday, August 6, 2020

Book 245: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town

"When the detectives began working the Ramsey case, they said to each other that they wouldn't settle for anything less than the death penalty. After the CBI's tests determined that what they had thought was semen was in fact blood, the detectives said they would accept nothing less than a conviction on a murder charge. A few months later, they would have settled for a felony conviction. By the time they met with the FBI at Quantico in September 1997, they would have considered an indictment a victory. When Eller was replaced, handcuffing would have felt like a triumph. After a solid year of working the case, they prayed for the chance at a second interview with the Ramseys. Now, eighteen months in, they were happy to have the opportunity to present the case to the DA."

Dates read: June 25- July 2, 2018

Rating: 7/10

When I was a kid, I was on the swim team. I grew up on the lake, learned how to swim early, and just loved the water...I spent basically all summer splashing around either at home or at day camp. I am without much in the way of athletic gifts (read: I am slow and clumsy), but I was a reasonably competent swimmer, so my mom signed me up for the swim team. There was some contention about it my freshman year of high school: I was no longer interested in the kind of practice required for high school swimmers, so I wanted to drop out. I was mediocre at best, so no one would have missed me. But my mom, remembering her own mother's decision to force her off the swim team she loved, refused to let me leave before the end of the season. I swore I'd never swim another lap if she persisted. She did, and I haven't swam one since.

What I'm going for here, beyond an example of my supreme stubbornness, is that many parents direct their kids toward activities that they themselves enjoyed growing up. My father-in-law was a long-time runner and track coach. My husband ran track throughout high school into college (and liked it!). And when Patsy Ramsey had a beautiful little daughter, she put her in pageants, which she'd participated in and enjoyed growing up. While it seems very unlikely at this point that the pageants had anything to do with JonBenet's death, at the time it lead to a lot of suspicion. Lawrence Schiller recounts these rumors, as well as quite a lot of actual facts, in Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, his book on the still-unsolved murder of the little beauty queen. Sourced from what seems to have been exhaustive research and interviews with as many of the players as possible, it recounts how the case developed (and developed issues) right from the moment the cops were called to report a kidnapping until the case was finally submitted to the grand jury.

What actually happened as a result of that grand jury (an indictment was issued against John and Patsy Ramsey, but the prosecutor refused to sign it) isn't covered, and that is of course the most interesting part. Who did it? Someone did. The book steadfastly refuses to answer the question, though. Schiller clearly is trying to stay neutral as much as possible, presenting the police department's firm belief that the parents were getting away with murder with just as much credibility as the prosecutor's office investigator's belief that it was an intruder. The answer is, of course, that we will almost certainly never know. JonBenet is dead. Patsy Ramsey, too, has passed away in the years since. John is still around, but unless he or whoever else might be responsible issues a deathbed confession, this case will remain forever open.

Schiller spends a lot of time on context to really develop a comprehensive picture of what was happening at the time in the world in which the Ramseys lived. The City of Boulder, its tightly controlled development and the resulting high price of real estate creating a little enclave, the rareness with which the police department had to investigate serious crimes, the charging philosophy of the District Attorney...all are relevant to what happened, or didn't happen. It's obvious that there were serious complications even from the start, with friends at the Ramseys having arrived at their home even before the police, with John apparently shutting the open basement window, with his discovery of his daughter's body and race with her upstairs. All of that destroyed valuable evidence, evidence that could have solved the crime maybe. Was clumsiness and shock at the root of the Ramseys' behavior? Or criminality?

We're presented with evidence both ways. At some points, reading this book, I was sure they'd done it, but at others sure they wouldn't have. I kept having to remind myself that I know full well, as a former attorney, that the parents absolutely did the smart thing by getting lawyers hired so soon and refusing to cooperate with the police. If I have one piece of free legal advice I ever give, it's that you should never ever talk to the police without counsel present. I would have done the same thing in their place. But it's so hard to reconcile this understanding with the gut assumption that refusing to talk to cops about the death of your daughter "isn't what an innocent person would do". It's easy to say they should have cooperated, but until you've been in their place and figured out that you're likely the number one suspect in a murder, it's hard to say what you would have done differently with their resources. To get back to the book, it's well-researched and well-developed. I could have done with less about the tabloid reporter, who Schiller clearly found interesting but I did not. It doesn't have much of a narrative flow, it's more a work of reporting than of story-telling, but it's organized and clear. I would definitely recommend it to those curious about the crime!

One year ago, I was reading: Marie Antoinette

Two years ago, I was reading: Less

Three years ago, I was reading: Party Monster

Four years ago, I was reading: Reading Lolita in Tehran

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