The 1996 murder of child beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey is getting a fresh look, thanks to the CBS documentary The Case Of JonBenet. The multi-part series will reunite several of the top investigators in the case in an attempt to solve the case once and for all, and DNA analysis will undoubtedly play a big role in this. There was a lot of DNA evidence in the Ramsey case, and its handling was both controversial and extremely consequential.
Ramsey’s father discovered her body in the basement of their home the day after Christmas in 1996, and it had several pieces of DNA evidence on it. Much of this came in the form of blood on Ramsey’s clothing and in her hair; there were also skin fragments discovered under her fingernails that contained DNA evidence.
None of this DNA matched Ramsey’s parents, who were at a time suspected of playing a role in their daughter’s death, but they've always denied any allegations of their involvement with the murder. And in 2003, investigators confirmed that it belonged to a male who wasn’t a member of the Ramsey family. This DNA was entered into the FBI’s national database, but it didn’t match with any DNA the FBI already had on file. This made it impossible to determine whose DNA it was, and it hasn’t been identified to this day.
In 2006, a man named John Mark Karr confessed to having killed Ramsey. However, authorities later determined that this was a false confession, in part because Karr’s DNA didn’t match that which was discovered on and around Ramsey’s body.
Two years later, authorities carried out a new type of DNA test known as “touch DNA testing,” and according to lead investigator Mary Lacy, this test fully exonerated both of Ramsey’s parents. In an open letter, Lacy apologized to the family for “contribut[ing] in any way to the public perception that you might have been involved in this crime.” As of now, the DNA found on Ramsey still hasn’t come up with a match.
However, all of this comes with one very big caveat: It’s possible that this DNA evidence was compromised. Years after the murder, investigators admitted that the crime scene “was not properly handled” in the days immediately following Ramsey’s death. According to Gordon Coombs, a former investigator in the Boulder County District Attorney’s office, this fact casts doubt on the DNA test that ostensibly exonerated the Ramseys.
DNA testing is an invaluable tool for crime scene investigators, and is responsible for exonerating over 300 people in the United States alone. But it’s not a silver bullet, and as the Ramsey case shows, it often leads to nothing more than a dead end.