Cold case solved? Not quite. There may be at least a new-ish and widely publicized theory about a scandalous homicide cold case.
But a Michigan judge recently denied CBS TV’s motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by Burke Ramsey, the brother of JonBenet Ramsey, a slain Boulder, Colo., tot and kiddie beauty queen. That means his legal action, seeking $750 million in damages, will advance, creating yet more infamy for an already notorious homicide in which no formal charges have been filed after more than two decades.
In September, 2016, CBS aired a two-part docu-series, The Case of JonBenet. The program featured a panel of law-enforcement experts whom, the broadcast network boasted, would re-investigate the 1996 killing of Jon Benet, 6. The brutal homicide of the blonde, blue-eyed and doll-looking girl, in a sleepy, collegiate town shocked the nation, and attracted unwavering international attention.
In a highly publicized CBS program viewed by millions, seven hand-picked forensic and investigative experts with purported major credentials and deep crime-fighting experience propounded that Burke Ramsey, then aged 9, accidentally and fatally struck his sister with a flashlight and that the children’s affluent parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, faked their daughter’s kidnapping to cover for their son.
Ramsey, who now lives in suburban Detroit, sued CBS in December, 2016, in a Michigan circuit court. He asserted in his action that the entire “gist” of the TV program was defamatory and was based on knowingly untrue facts. He said the broadcasts falsely depicted him as his sister’s killer, despite prosecutors and police in Boulder clearing him of any involvement in his sister’s slaying.
He took to the Dr. Phil television show to break two decades of public silence on the case, and to denounce the CBS work and deny any role in his sister’s death. Separately, he also sued Werner U. Spitz, a forensic pathologist and a participant on the CBS TV docu-series, over remarks he made to a Detroit radio station about the case.
CBS argued that Ramsey’s complaint should be thrown out, because the series it broadcast consistently signaled that it offered “subjective opinions” of its expert participant-guests. CBS also stressed that a disclaimer aired at the beginning and end of the program, contending that the views offered consisted of a “hypothesis” about the case and might be one of many possible.
The broadcast network’s lawyers pointed Judge David A. Groner to Partington v. Bugliosi, 25 F3d 1147 (CA9, 1995), in which, he wrote, allegedly defamatory statements in a well-known prosecutor’s after-the-fact book about a homicide case, “were not actionable because they were too subjective in nature
and clearly the author’s opinion.” But the judge turned, instead, to Milkovich v Lorain Journal Co, 497 US 1; 110 S Ct 2695; 111 L Ed 2d 1 (1990), and Lasky v Am Broad Cos, Inc , 631 F Supp 962, 970 (SDNY 1986).
The court rejected, for purposes of the dismissal request, the assertion that the broadcast’s disclaimer was sufficient to negate the docu-series’ potentially defamatory meaning. The judge found that statements in it and the docu-series as a whole could reasonably be understood as offering facts about Burke Ramsey, giving ample issues for a case to proceed.
The Hollywood Reporter said CBS released a statement in response to the ruling: “This very preliminary procedural ruling was issued prior to any evidence being presented. It is based solely on the plaintiff’s complaint. Should the case move forward, we look forward to defending it on its merits.”