Understanding the JonBenet Ramsey grand jury's vote to indict both of the girl's parents for child abuse resulting in death, and then-District Attorney Alex Hunter's subsequent refusal to sign the indictment or prosecute the case, is hampered at the outset by the cloak of secrecy which, by law, enveloped the process.
"To me it seems to mean that the grand jury compromised, for this reason," said Dan Recht, a Denver criminal defense lawyer and legal analyst. "JonBenet Ramsey was killed intentionally. That seems clear. The way that she was tied up, the way that she was manipulated physically, everyone would agree that she was intentionally killed.
"So to have a grand jury say that they acted recklessly, seems like a compromise."
Camera file photo
However, not everyone agrees that the death was initiated by a deliberate act. One police theory of the case held that the events of the night of Dec. 25, 1996, might have started with an accidental injury to JonBenet.
"Under that (scenario), if that was presented to the jury -- andI don't know how it would have been -- but if it was, then it's possible that the grand jury made a more informed decision," Recht said, "and this wasn't a complete compromise verdict inconsistent with the facts as Alex Hunter knew them to be."
If, in fact, the Ramsey grand jury's decision did represent a compromise decision made in the absence of jurors' confidence about what really took place inside 755 15th St. on Christmas night in 1996, that would not be unusual, Recht said.
"Juries compromise all the time, but normally it isn't quite so blatant as this seems to be," Recht said. "But in a homicide case, for example -- and now I'm talking about a regular, petit jury -- and the person is charged with first-degree murder, there's second-degree murder, there's manslaughter, and juries will regularly compromise between what the parties want, because they can't come up with a unanimous verdict of first-degree murder.
"And so they'll compromise on a lesser offense. That is the nature of jurors, often."
The language of the Colorado statute relating to child abuse states that the crime can be charged when a person "engages in a continued pattern of conduct that results in malnourishment, lack of proper medical care, cruel punishment, mistreatment or an accumulation of injuries that ultimately results in the death of a child or serious bodily injury to a child."
A failure to seek necessary emergency medical care after an accidental injury, such as a blow to a child's head rendering a child unconscious, would meet the statute's requirements, experts said.
Could jury have bypassed DA?
Meanwhile, there are questions surrounding Hunter's actions once the indictment was returned.
University of Colorado law professor Mimi Wesson said she believes that under Colorado grand jury law, Hunter might not have had the statutory power to invalidate the indictment by refusing to sign it.
"I doubt that a judge would order a prosecutor to sign an indictment, but that's a different question from the validity of an unsigned indictment," she wrote in an email.
"The question of the prosecutor's obligation usually comes up when a defendant is indicted and arrested and arraigned and generally put in the path of a prosecution, and then tries to get the charges dismissed on the ground of the prosecutor's failure to sign the indictment," she added. "This has not come up in Colorado that I can discover, but in some other jurisdictions, these defendants have not been successful."
Wesson also pointed out that Rule 6.6 of the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure states that, "Presentation of an indictment in open court by a grand jury may be accomplished by the foreman of the grand jury, the full grand jury or by the prosecutor under the instructions of the grand jury."
In the email, Wesson stated, "It seems to me that this rule suggests that the grand jurors had the power to bypass the DA's Office and report to the court that they had returned an indictment. Of course, if they did not know they had this power, they might believe that they were powerless to act without the DA, and that they were bound to maintain secrecy."
Sara Sun Beale, a professor at Duke University School of Law and author of the book "Grand Jury Law & Practice," said that while she did not disagree with Wesson's interpretation, she believed it remains "an open question" whether Hunter followed proper procedure under Colorado law.
'Let the community understand'
Now, with more than 13 years having passed since the grand jury left the Boulder County Justice Center for the last time, one grand juror who spoke to the Daily Camera asked what benefit might lie in the jury's decision finally being reported.
Addressing that question, Recht said, "I'm not sure if it's going to move the ball down the field, as far as figuring out who actually did this, as far as prosecuting anybody for doing this. So I don't know if it does anything in that regard.
"On the other hand," Recht said, "this is a case that was watched by the whole country. And this new information gives the country, the community, some insight into how the criminal justice system works. And that's helpful, and that's what, in essence, the First Amendment is about, which is to let the citizens, let the community understand how our government works, how the criminal justice system works."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or email@example.com.