Burden of Proof 10/22/99

Posted by LovelyPigeon on Oct-22-99 at 08:18 PM (EST)

Providing Justice for JonBenet: Will the Mystery Ever be Solved?

Aired October 22, 1999 - 12:30 p.m. ET



ALEX HUNTER, BOULDER COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: The Boulder grand jury has completed its work and will not return. No charges have been filed.

GOV. BILL OWENS, COLORADO: Yet the fact remains that a little girl has been brutally murdered and her killer or killers remain at large. I believe that justice, therefore, demands that we evaluate every remaining legal option that might help us determine who murdered JonBenet Ramsey.

CHIEF MARK BECKNER, BOULDER POLICE: What matters is finding justice for JonBenet. To this day, two years and nine months after her death, we are as committed to that objective as we were from day one.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: The grand jury has ended its work, yet Boulder police say they will continue the investigation of JonBenet Ramsey's murder. Her parents have hired a prominent libel attorney and may file suit against media organizations, but will the mystery ever be solved? Providing justice for JonBenet.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Last week,after a year-long investigation, a Boulder grand jury retired without taking any action in the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation. That news prompted Colorado Governor Bill Owens to form a task force of seven lawyers to look into the case.

VAN SUSTEREN: And, on Monday, to ensure the secrecy of the panel, the state's attorney general swore in the task force members as assistant attorney generals.

Their first order of business came soon after. On Monday, they met with Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter and other prosecutors involved in the Ramsey case. And, yesterday, the governor met with Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner. The police are scheduled to meet with Owens and the Colorado Bureau of Investigations this afternoon.

COSSACK: Joining us today from Denver are KOA radio anchor April Zesbaugh and criminal defense attorney Peter Schild.

VAN SUSTEREN: And here is Washington, Barbara Gregory (ph), former federal prosecutor Pam Stuart, and Michael Gregory (ph). And, in our back row, Adriana Cook (ph), Alisa Rodero (ph), and Mindy Macarthur (ph).

April, first to you, what is the status of these meetings? First, we had the prosecutors, and now we have the police. What are we learning about those meetings?

APRIL ZESBAUGH, KOA RADIO: Absolutely nothing. I can tell you what they ordered for dinner on Monday, they had Pizza from Dominoes.

VAN SUSTEREN: How long did they meet, I mean, let's look into this, how long did they meet with the prosecutors?

ZESBAUGH: About four hours on Monday night is what we heard from that meeting. It was Governor Owens, his seven-member task force that includes Ken Salizer (ph), the attorney general, the deputy chief, also the director of public safety here in Denver, and some other folks -- prominent people here in Denver looking at this case. And they met with Alex Hunter, the DA of Boulder County, on Monday.

Then, yesterday, it was more of a private meeting between Governor Owens, his task force, and Mark Beckner, the chief of the police department in Boulder. Today, they're meeting again with the Boulder Police Department and with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation at 2:00 Mountain Time to try to decide, as you said, is there any more reason, any more evidence to appoint a special prosecutor in this case.

VAN SUSTEREN: April, in the "Denver Post" today, Mark Beckner, who is the police chief, is reported as saying that the meeting was "productive" and he was "impressed with the procedure the governor is going through."

Now that -- Beckner and the DA's office have been sort of in conflict over this case. Is there anything to sort of be read into that statement or not?

ZESBAUGH: I don't think so. Mark Beckner hasn't come out, and politically he can't come out, and say: I think it's a good or a bad idea for Owens to be looking into the special prosecutor idea. All he has come out and said, as you said, is that Owens needs to be very thorough and he's doing that, and he's also said that he hopes something helps spur on justice for this little girl, and also that he wants to get to the truth as much as Owens and the DA do in this case as much as all of us do.

But he claims that he is going to continue on with his Boulder Police Department investigating this thoroughly and working at it just as hard as ever. So, yeah, there may be some sort of spike there that this feeling that Owens doesn't think that the Boulder Police Department is competent.

COSSACK: Peter, if this special prosecutor is appointed, does that mean that Alex Hunter is totally out of the picture, that he takes over for Alex Hunter instead of Hunter's function? And does that mean that there would not be another grand jury empaneled?

PETER SCHILD, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, to answer your questions in order, first of all, a special prosecutor is probably not going to be appointed because, under our laws, in order to have a judge appoint a special prosecutor, the judge would have to find that Mr. Hunter was acting arbitrarily and capriciously, and had absolutely no basis not to bring charges in this case.

VAN SUSTEREN: Then why are we going through this procedure, Peter?

COSSACK: Peter, more importantly, is the investigation that is continuing now, or that started by Governor Owens to find out whether or not Alex Hunter acted as you just described?

SCHILD: No, I don't think so because he obviously acted with deliberate speed and he had the benefit of the grand jury to back him up in his decision. So a special prosecutor probably can't be appointed because you can't really say that Mr. Hunter didn't act reasonably.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, Pam, I'm actually even critical of the governor in doing this, because one of the things the governor said when he first discussed appointing a special prosecutor is he wanted to give people a different viewpoints on the case. And, frankly, that's exactly what Alex Hunter did. Alex Hunter got Bob Grant from Adams County, the chief DA there; he got Bill Ritter, who is the chief DA in Denver; he got a prosecutor from Pennsylvania to help on the case. What's the point?

PAM STUART, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Greta, I believe that the point here is a political one for the governor, and I'm not saying this is wrong. He's trying to assure the people of the state of Colorado that every avenue has been pursued in this case.

And I think probably what happened in that meeting yesterday with the prosecutors was that he and the members of his task force were given an overview of every piece of evidence that has been examined to date.

VAN SUSTEREN: But you know, it is one thing to cross your T's and dot your I's, and I commend, you know, the governor for wanting to do that, but frankly I see it a little bit as an insult to Alex Hunter only because he's done precisely what the governor now says that he's doing. This was not just Alex Hunter doing this investigation. Alex Hunter actually reached out, and had very experienced prosecutors come in and take a look at it, it wasn't just his decision.

So, in some ways, I mean, is a political decision really the type of decision one should make at this point, Pam?

STUART: Well, it's, I think, a very unusual procedure to examine the decision of a grand jury as is being done in this case. But I think it may have the effect of satisfying the people of Colorado that there was not enough evidence even to make it to the probable cause standard needed for an indictment. And, if that's the case, there's probably little or no chance that anyone who might have been charged could have been convicted.

So, in a sense, the grand jury did the people a favor here and the governor is merely satisfying himself as the elected leader in Colorado that all has been done.

COSSACK: Peter, isn't there kind of an impression that comes from this that, by the governor stepping in right after the grand jury refuses to at least come to an indictment, that there somehow is a lack of confidence in Hunter, and the thought that maybe we'll find a special prosecutor, we don't like this result so we'll find a special prosecutor who will come up with a different result?

SCHILD: Well, I think that that certainly is one possibility here, because the governor is reinventing the wheel and revisiting something that has really been examined carefully by the grand jurors and by the outside experts that Mr. Hunter called in.

VAN SUSTEREN: Peter, can you defend this at all by the governor?

SCHILD: I've never heard of a governor doing this before. This is not a situation where the governor or anybody in his staff can really argue that Mr. Hunter was acting out of an improper purpose or reason.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we are going to take a break. A new JonBenet legal saga may be written soon with John and Patsy Ramsey as plaintiffs. Find out why some hunters in the media could soon become the hunted, when we come back.


In a Reading, Pennsylvania courtroom Tuesday, a Berks County judge was beaten unconscious by a suspect upset over the prospect of being committed to a mental hospital.

Judge Linda K.M. Ludgate was hospitalized with a broken right forearm, a broken nose and other facial fractures.




Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight will be cited for hunting without a license after he shot and slightly injured his hunting partner in Wisconsin.


VAN SUSTEREN: The parents of JonBenet Ramsey may soon be targeting members of the media for stories on the murder and its investigation. John and Patsy Ramsey have hired Atlanta libel attorney Lin Wood who told the "Denver Post" he was hired before last week's announcement that no indictments have been handed down in the case.

April, what can you tell me about the possibility that there may be some civil legal action?

ZESBAUGH: Well, there is that possibility. You mentioned Lin Wood who rose to fame a couple years ago in the Richard Jewell case in that Olympic Park bombing -- slander/libel case of Richard Jewell, and Jewell is still suing some media outlets for that. He's already won about 500 grand. So this may look good for the Ramseys, that they are being represented by a guy who has done these type of media libel cases before.

But -- and I'm sure your legal analyst will say the same thing -- this may be tough for the Ramseys to win a case against the media for libeling them because they haven't been cleared as suspects. So, until that happens, there could be problems.

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh, but let me -- but there's one point -- let me go to you on this, Peter. The Ramseys may not have been cleared, but there are an awful lot of stories that have floated around about Burke, and he has specifically been cleared. What about the possibilities that Burke might have a cause of action?

SCHILD: Well, he still has to show, even if he's not been implicated -- he still has to show that the media knew or recklessly disregarded their knowledge that he was innocent. And I think that, mainly, what the media has been saying is opinion and passing on other information that it's gotten legitimately from law enforcement agencies.

COSSACK: Pam, it's an uphill battle to sue the media. And, as Greta points out, and April pointed out, the Ramseys have not been cleared yet. How would you advise them in this situation? Would you advise them to go after the media?

STUART: Well, if I were their attorney, I would explain to them the standard that will apply to them because they have, in effect, through this process, become public figures. In order to win a case like that, they would have to show that the media acted with what we call malice. And as Peter said, that means we have to show that the media was reckless.

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh, wait a second. I disagree with all of you. First of all, they were not public figures when this started. And set the Ramseys aside because they've got, you know, they're own sort of -- they're still under the umbrella. You bring a case on behalf of Burke, if he's either been accused of a crime or he's been held on what you call a false light, then you don't have to show that element of malice because I don't think he's a public figure. This is a little boy.

COSSACK: Wait a minute. False light outside of the District of Columbia? I thought that's...

VAN SUSTEREN: That doesn't -- listen, I'll tell you: You sue in the District of Columbia because if any...

COSSACK: But, wait, you have to -- how do you get jurisdiction in the District of Columbia?

VAN SUSTEREN: Easily. If any newspaper has been sold to the District of Columbia, any broadcast has originated in the District of Columbia, any other jurisdiction has a false light tort -- I mean, if you send any of your newspapers here, there's always the risk that, with the new Internet, the fact that you could download it into the District of Columbia.

I'll tell you, getting jurisdiction here would not be a problem at all. The question is whether or not he's been accused of a crime, which might be libel, per se. If not accused for a crime, but, rather, if there's been a lot of innuendo, then you run the risk of this false light tort.

COSSACK: But doesn't he become a public figure, Greta?

VAN SUSTEREN: You can't make -- you can't take a person who has not projected himself into the public light and make him into a public figure by constantly talking about them in the media. I mean, they have done that in the case of -- Richard Jewell has had that problem. But this is a boy, this is not an adult, and I think the court may look at that one differently.

COSSACK: Well, I think...

STUART: Yes, the parents actually injected themselves into this quite quickly. If you'll remember, they were giving news conferences. So they, I think, would clearly be seen as public figures in this case. But I think Greta's right that their son may be a different story.

VAN SUSTEREN: It depends on what was said, whether it was opinion, as Peter said, and whether or not it is, you know, how it was reported. But I bet Lin Wood is going back very carefully through a lot of reports.

COSSACK: Peter, Greta and I, surprisingly enough, have some dispute over whether or not you can sort of passively inject yourself into a public figure. I think you can. What's your opinion on that?

SCHILD: Well, I think that sometimes you become a public figure even if you don't want to be; just events take you over and suddenly you're before the public. I don't think the concept of public figure is something where you set out to become one.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I think you're right, but that's called a limited public figure, Peter. But I suspect, and I don't think it's ever been tested, when it's a child, I'm not so sure that the law would look at it that way, you know, because the law always looks at children's issues differently.

COSSACK: Well, Greta...

SCHILD: I think that's probably...

COSSACK: I'm sorry, let's take a break.

SCHILD: I'm sorry.

COSSACK: Up next, after three years and over a million dollars in investigative resources, the grand jury was unable to point their finger of suspicion at anyone in this case. Will we ever know who took the life of JonBenet Ramsey? Stay with us.



Q: A Washington jury has ruled that the D.C. police department must pay the mother of an informant $98 million for negligence in his death. In what under cover investigation did informant Eric Butera assist?

A: A triple murder in a Georgetown Starbucks coffee shop. Three people were convicted in Butera's death. A suspect pleaded not guilty in the Starbucks case.


COSSACK: Welcome back.

Was the murder of JonBenet Ramsey the perfect crime? And will her killer ever be found?

Well, April Zesbaugh, as you pointed out earlier in the show, there's been extensive investigation in this case of DNA and fibers.

If you had to -- if anyone, a special prosecutor, or anyone has to begin the investigation of this case again, where do they start?

ZESBAUGH: All over again, probably, and Governor Owens has assured us that he will make a decision after continually meeting with prosecutors and police officers from Boulder in this case for the next few weeks. He will then make a decision on what a special prosecutor can add to this case. But, like I said, they'll have to start all over. They have the right to subpoena witnesses again, they have a -- they can certainly call a grand jury back in order in Boulder and let them go through this evidence all over again and see if they can find some kernel, some shred of evidence that the last grand jury, and the last DNA experts, and fiber experts didn't find.

What he does assure us, though, is that it won't cost the money that has already been spent on this case, so we won't see another $2 million of taxpayer money going into this investigation. He assures us anyway.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you figure that, April? I mean, like, how does the governor figure that one?

ZESBAUGH: I don't know...

COSSACK: That one got to you didn't it?

ZESBAUGH: When you consider how much it's already cost and how long it's taken, and we've done some informal polls on the streets of Denver and in Boulder when we were up there for the end of this case. People say, overwhelmingly, they want justice in this case for this little girl, but they don't want any more of their tax dollars going -- spent on the investigation.

VAN SUSTEREN: Peter, is -- I mean, are there crimes -- that we use the term perfect -- where prosecutors simply cannot solve them? Is there such a thing as a perfect crime?

SCHILD: I don't know if there is such a thing as a perfect crime, but there are certainly things like unsolved crimes. Not all crimes are solved. But with homicides, surprisingly, sometimes these kinds of crimes are solved 10, 15 years later, because allegiances change and there's newly discovered evidence.

COSSACK: Pam, let's go back a second and talk about this libel action that we were talking about before. In this particular case, assuming that Burke was one that brought -- the lawsuit was brought on behalf of -- what kind of damages would he be looking at?

STUART: I think he would be looking at significant damages, Roger. After all, he has to live with the loss of his sister for the rest of his life, but he also will have to live with the lingering suspicion that he was the one who committed this awful crime. And if he's been declared innocent by the prosecutors, that is they are satisfied that he did not commit this offense, and if, hypothetically, some media outlet said something that planted the seed of this suspicion and was reckless about it, then there may be a cause of action. But I think it would be a quite sizable damage award.

VAN SUSTEREN: Pam, though, the loss -- if there were this hypothetical lawsuit -- it wouldn't be for the value of the loss of losing a sister, it would be the value of the besmirched reputation and the fact that he may find this on his gravestone, the footnote that this happened, and sometime made less of.

But let me ask you a question about discovery. If you bring the case on behalf of Burke, does that necessarily, or can the defense depose Patsy and John Ramsey?

STUART: Yes, they can. And that may or may not give us some new evidence. My guess is it probably would not.

COSSACK: And, Greta, as you point out, in a deposition, it's no holds barred. I mean, they can ask the Ramseys anything they want and the traditional rules of evidence that may apply, for example, in a trial or in a criminal case, just aren't there, are they?

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh, that's right. I mean, the discovery rules are so much looser. But, if I were the lawyers on behalf of the Ramseys, and the case were brought on behalf of Burke, rather than themselves individually, I would fight to limit it because the issues are somewhat narrowed.

It wouldn't be the parents bringing the lawsuit, but the child. And that the deposition would still have to relate to Burke and to the damages Burke suffered. So, there would be some effort, not a lot of luck there trying to limit it, but, certainly, I would try.

STUART: The Ramseys also probably would still have a Fifth Amendment right not to testify in that case because, unlike O.J. Simpson who was acquitted after a criminal trial, there has never been any kind of criminal trial here. There will not be a final resolution.

VAN SUSTEREN: And one of the other sort of interesting aspects is that most libel cases have a statute of limitations, which is only a year in most jurisdictions, I think New Hampshire is a three year. But isn't it true, Pam, that it would have to be something that happened within the statute, obviously.

STUART: That's right. And so we could only look at what has been said, say from a year prior to the time that they filed the civil action.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Last chance, don't forget today to watch Roger hosting "TALKBACK LIVE."

COSSACK: Today's topic: a one-time cocaine addict, whose child was given up for adoption, says she's kicked the habit and wants her son back. Today, he's three years old. That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific.

And we'll be back Monday with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.