JONBENET SAGA CONTINUES WITH LIBEL CASES

By: Jim Moscou

Ramseys Embroiled In Civil Court Slugfest


Just when you thought the saga of JonBenet was fading away, get
ready for what could be the most dramatic year yet. Four and half
years after Boulder, Colo., detectives and an 18-month grand jury
investigation failed to solve the murder of the six-year-old, the
Ramsey case is on the brink of becoming a civil court slugfest.

To date, at least 11 civil claims related to the case asking for
nearly $260 million in damages have been filed. But unlike, say,
the O.J. civil trial, which aimed to prove Simpson’s guilt
through a wrongful death lawsuit, the First Amendment is at the
heart of the JonBenet trials. Both accusers and accused are
hoping to use media lawsuits, namely libel, as a way of proving
who did – or didn’t – kill JonBenet. A more realistic
expectation: with civil depositions and discovery part of the
upcoming program, expect a steady revelation of new details about
the investigation in a national press that seemingly can’t get
enough JonBenet.

At the center of the most significant cases is Atlanta libel
attorney L. Lin Wood, who cut his teeth on First Amendment law in
1996 when he took on the Richard Jewell case. Since being hired
by the Ramseys in 1999, Wood has not shied from bringing his
clients into the courtroom or in front of the press. In March, he
even arranged for the couple to be interviewed by the National
Enquirer, generally ardent accusers of the couple’s guilt.

Yet, for the past year Wood has argued in court mostly for
JonBenet’s brother, Burke, which is the most tragic story here,
second to JonBenet. For years, the 14-year-old was a favorite
target for tabloids and even mainstream press claims that he
killed his sister. In response, Burke has filed nearly $80
million in libel lawsuits, with Wood’s promise of others to come.
What makes the boy’s claims disturbing is that Boulder
authorities actually cleared Burke as a suspect months after the
murder.

But the media may be more interested in parents John and Patsy,
who will undoubtedly go to court this year. Everyone involved
knows there’s a vein of Ramsey-story gold waiting to be struck:
grand jury transcripts, sealed police records, perhaps on-the-stand slipups.

Here’s a quick primer of the eleven suits related to the
Ramsey case. Libel cases are usually big ticket claims, but it’s
important to remember that most victories are settled or awarded
a fraction of the amount asked. The first name in each lawsuit is
the plaintiff.

Burke Ramsey vs. Globe

The Claim: Libel, filed May 2000 in U.S. District Court,
Atlanta.

The Press: A November 1998 article: “Burke, 11, is the
Killer — say Crime Investigators — And Burke will NEVER Stand
Trial!”

The Money: $35 million

Current Status: Settled for an undisclosed amount in March
2001.

Beyond the Bar: Without question, the Globe took
the early lead in JonBenet reporting. They gathered information
even the cops didn’t have. And, like other media, it discovered
early that pointing at Burke as the killer increased sales
(E&P, “The Tabloid Turncoat” July 24, 1999).
But it was Globe editor Craig Lewis who was later indicted for
criminal extortion and bribery charges stemming from dubious
reporting. Plus, the story was just wrong. All told, it likely
made this claim just the cost of doing business for the
Globe.

Burke Ramsey vs. The Star

The Claim: Libel, filed November 1999 in U.S. District
Court, Atlanta.

The Press: Several stories, including a May 1999 piece,
“Ramseys in top secret plea bargain talks as evidence shows …
JonBenet Was Killed By Brother Burke” and a July 1999 article,
“Sad Twisted Life Of JonBenet’s Brother.”

The Money: $25 million

Current Status: Settled for an undisclosed amount March
2000.

Beyond the Bar: While media accusations of Burke killing
his sister were made before, it was the Star’s stories
that were taken the most seriously after being picked up by
several mainstream press outlets (See the Post and
Time.com cases). But the reporting was stunningly egregious.
Burke was always a witness, never a suspect, in JonBenet’s
murder. Several weeks after these stories came out, the
Star published a rare front-page retraction. Apparently,
it wasn’t enough. The boy sued and the Star quickly
settled.

Burke Ramsey vs. New York Post

The Claim: Defamation, filed May 2000 in U.S. District
Court, New York City.

The Press: Effectively a complete review of the
Star’s May/July 1999 articles. The front page headline on
the May 13, 1999 Post read, “Parents’ Deal Could Be
Bombshell. Brother, 9, Murdered Jonbenet: Mag.”

The Money: $4 million

Current Status: The Post and Ramsey attorney Wood
are still arguing over discovery, with the Post (and co-
defendant Time.com, see below) asking the court to allow them
access to police files from the criminal investigation itself.

Beyond the Bar: Another case likely to be settled before
trial. Burke will be considered a “private figure” since he was
just nine when his sister was murdered and never asked for media
attention. The Post will have to also prove they were not
negligent in following the Star’s story. One wildcard,
though: The Post is asking the court to unseal the records
by Boulder police investigators to likely see if their stories
had any merit. While it would likely not help their libel case,
it could reveal more information on JonBenet’s murder –
along with more fodder for stories.

Burke Ramsey vs. Time.com (Time Warner Companies, Inc.)

The Claim: Defamation, filed May 2000 in U.S. District
Court, New York City.

The Press: Like the Post, the dot-com version of
one of America’s most respected magazines picked up the
Star’s stories in May 1999: “Extra: Tabloid Solves
JonBenet Case! Star magazine reports that police now think
the brother did it. Don’t laugh.”

The Money: $4 million

Current Status: Time.com, along with co-defendant the
Post, are fighting it out in preliminary hearings in
Manhattan’s federal court.

Beyond the Bar: The story was a ringing endorsement of the
Star’s article, praising the tabloid’s reporting,
reporter, and conclusion: Burke killed JonBenet. The likely
result is another undisclosed settlement.

Burke Ramsey vs. Court TV (Time Warner Companies, Inc.)

The Claim: Possible defamation, from a November 1999 show
on the case.

The Press: The show’s title: “Who Killed Jonbenet Ramsey:
Prime Suspects.” It was an hour-long special focusing on four
potential murderers: Mom, Dad, “The Intruder,” and Burke. The
show’s host Rikki Klieman spent a quarter of the hour on, ” …
the most disturbing scenario … Could (Burke Ramsey) have
possibly killed his own sister, JonBenet?”

The Money: N/A

Current Status: Not filed, but on the top of Lin Wood’s
list.

Beyond the Bar: JonBenet and cable TV’s courtroom drama
king was an easy match for a special. But, again, a call to the
Boulder district attorney should have steered producers away from
Burke. Likely outcome: Watch the Time.com case. If Wood makes
some headway for his client – or is shut down – it’ll
determine the future of this filing.

Burke Ramsey vs. Windsor House Publishing Group, Eleanor Von
Duyke & Dwight Wallington

The Claim: Libel, filed May 2000 in the District Court of
Travis County, Texas.

The Press: In Windsor’s February 1998 book, “A Little
Girl’s Dream? A JonBenet Ramsey Story,” Burke is portrayed as
sexually molesting his sister, being mentally ill, and guilty of
murder.

The Money: $11.75 million.

Current Status: Still in early discovery hearings.

Beyond the Bar: Windsor’s book is one of more than a dozen
that has been written about JonBenet’s murder. But it’s the only
one that argued Burke killed JonBenet. John and Patsy Ramsey say
this case, along with Burke’s other filings, reflects their
continued effort to fight for their son’s reputation. If the case
goes to jury, Windsor is looking at a tough sell, having to argue
that they didn’t act negligently in making their accusations.
Likely outcome: another settlement.

John & Patsy Ramsey vs. former Boulder detective Steve
Thomas

The Claim: Libel, slander, intentional infliction of
emotional distress, and deprivation of Constitutional rights,
filed March 29, 2001, in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

The Press: Thomas’s book, “JonBenet: Inside the Ramsey
Investigation,” and his ensuing high-profile campaign
unequivocally calls Patsy Ramsey the killer of her daughter.

The Money: $80 million.

Current Status: Recently filed, so legal proceedings have
yet to get underway. Meanwhile, Thomas has hired a world-class
attorney that’s sure to make this case even more interesting. His
name: Daniel Petrocelli, the lawyer who successfully sued O.J.
Simpson and won in the Brown family’s wrongful death suit.

Beyond the Bar: If there’s a legal high noon waiting in
the wings, it’s this one. Last year, Thomas, a lead Ramsey
investigator, published a scathing (and best selling) book
outlining why he thinks Patsy, with John assisting in the cover-
up, committed the murder. He trumpeted the charge on a book tour,
Larry King, and the morning news shows. The libel claim may be
difficult to prove. But expect a real battle over emotional
distress and the due process charges. After all, if the couple is
innocent and Thomas used confidential police information, did
they get a fair shake from the system?

Chris Wolf vs. John and Patsy Ramsey

The Claim: Libel, slander, and intentional infliction of
emotional distress, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, May
2000.

The Press: Wolf says the Ramseys in their book, “Death of
Innocence,” libelously portrays him as a suspect in the murder.
“Wolf went on our suspect list,” John Ramsey wrote in part. “He
represented too many unanswered questions (and) … by March 1,
1999, we had reported more information on Chris Wolf to the
authorities.”

The Money: $50 million.

Current Status: Attempts by the Ramseys to have the case
dismissed were flatly denied by a judge in February. The suit is
moving into discovery. Depositions will likely begin in May and a
trial by early fall.

Beyond the Bar: Wolf’s attorney is a New York lawyer named
Darnay Hoffman, who made a name for himself years ago by accusing
Patsy of the murder, and trying to force Colorado to file charges
against the parents. That case was effectively dismissed. Now
Hoffman intends to use two libel cases (see Pugh) to try and
prove Patsy wrote the infamous ransom note, thus, by default
proving she’s the murderer. The suit also says Patsy committed
libel. One thing seems to be for certain: Hoffman is not
interested in settling, and after winning the February hearing,
this lawsuit has got some legs.

Linda Hoffmann-Pugh vs. John and Patsy Ramsey

The Claim: Libel and slander, filed in U.S. District
Court, Atlanta, March 2001.

The Press: Pugh was the Ramseys’ housekeeper and was named
by the couple as a potential suspect in their book and in public
statements. “Patsy remembers that her mother, Nedra Pugh, had
said that Linda had remarked to her at one time, ‘JonBenet is so
pretty; aren’t you afraid that someone might kidnap her?’ Now
those comments seem strangely menacing.”

The Money: $50 million.

Current Status: Still early in the case, so no major legal
moves. Depositions will likely begin in May, any trial later this
summer.

Beyond the Bar: Again, New York lawyer Hoffman, a vocal
accuser of Patsy as the murderer, aims to use libel to prove mom
did it. Hoffman said he waited to see if the Wolf case was
accepted by the courts, which it was. And now, as in the Wolf
case, Hoffman will not likely settle. Meanwhile, Pugh, who is
working on a book, is waiting on a court decision that would
allow her to openly discuss her grand jury testimony that’s
currently under seal. If she gets approval, then anyone who
testified during the grand jury would be open to being deposed by
Hoffman. That’s more than 100 witnesses.

Former Boulder detective Linda Arndt vs. the City of Boulder,
former police chief Tom Koby, and Boulder police chief Mark
Beckner

The Claim: Violation of her right to free speech when
Arndt wasn’t allowed to defend herself under harsh media
criticism for her handling of the case. Also, a claim she was
placed before the public in a “false and highly offensive light.”
Filed in May 1998. Currently in U.S. District Court in Denver.

The Press: Linda Arndt was one of the first detectives on
the scene, and quickly became the lightening rod of criticism.
She claims she was unfairly gagged, while the department refused
to correct false information and damaging statements made about
her in the media.

The Money: $150,000.

Current Status: Set for trial in May, but efforts for
summary judgement is still being considered by the court.

Beyond the Bar: Arndt is trying to win back her
reputation. And like the other cases, this one may also lead to
some insight on the investigation. Boulder cops and police chiefs
at the center of the JonBenet investigation for years could end
up on the stand. The most likely outcome: a settlement before the
Boulder authorities let their finest take the oath and tell all.

Steven Miles vs. John and Patsy Ramsey & the National
Enquirer

The Claim: Libel, slander, and intentional infliction of
emotional distress.

The Press: Boulder photographer and Ramsey neighbor
Stephen Miles sued the couple and the National Enquirer
after an October 1997 article that referred to Miles as a drug
addict and a pedophile. The article quoted an anonymous source as
saying the Ramseys believed Miles killed JonBenet.

The Money: N/A.

Current Status: The lawsuit was thrown out in late 1999.

Beyond the Bar: While the case didn’t have much merit, it
was the first libel lawsuit filed and included the first
deposition of John Ramsey. In February 2000, those depositions
were released and in responding to a question about the media
attention and accusations, John Ramsey offered this foreboding
thought: “You get angry, you know,” he said. “People don’t like
untruths said about them.”



Jim Moscou (scou@aol.com) is a Boulder, Colo.-based free-lance writer.



Related story:
RAMSEYS FILE NEW ROUND OF LIBEL LAWSUITS (05/11/00)



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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