JonBenét Ramsey: two decades later, the case still baffles, fascinates

Two decades after the mysterious death of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, a number of networks and television shows have announced anniversary specials. 

David Zalubowski/AP/File
A police officer sits in her cruiser on Jan. 3, 1997 outside the home in which 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in Boulder, Colorado on Dec. 26, 1996.

On December 26, 1996, six-year-old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey was found dead in the basement of her family's home in Boulder, Colo. 

The highly publicized case captured the attention of the nation as armchair detectives everywhere worked along with police to get to the bottom of the murder. Twenty years later, there still hasn't been an arrest. But an upcoming miniseries from CBS aims to change that.

The trailer for the six-hour documentary miniseries, titled "The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey," features both new and original investigators working together to solve the mystery once and for all. The series is one of a number of television specials set to air in honor of the anniversary – among them, an Investigation Discovery special, a Lifetime movie, and a three-part Dr. Phil episode – proving that two decades later, Americans' interest in JonBenét's unsolved murder is as strong as ever. 

"This case keeps on coming back," said Lawrence Schiller, author of the book "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenet Murder and the Grand Jury's Search for the Final Truth," to the New York Post. "It's like going to the beach. The tide goes out and it goes back in, and the police are hoping the next time it comes in, they may catch who did it."

Typically, Mr. Schiller says, such a case "would have lasted in regional newspapers for one week." 

So what gives the mystery of JonBenét Ramsey's death such longevity?

"It's the release of videos of JonBenét in beauty pageants, and the release, days later, of still photos of her in hair and makeup. The tabloids latched on to that," Schiller said. "What sustained it? Very simple: The police department said, 'The parents did it,' and a DA who said, 'I'm not going to prosecute.' " 

Harold Schechter, a true crime writer and professor of literature and popular culture at Queens College, notes that children are murdered every day without receiving the kind of widespread attention that JonBenét Ramsey has. What sets her case apart, he tells the Post, is a combination of story, characters, and setting. 

"The JonBenét case has a lot of the elements of the closed-room mystery: Everybody’s home, no apparent break-in," he told the Post. "In general, true crime speaks to these very dark places in our heads that none of us would consciously admit to."

The twentieth anniversary of the murder comes at a time when true crime mania is at an all-time high in the United States. Documentary series such as Netflix's "Making a Murderer," HBO's "The Jinx," and the podcast "Serial," all of which examine real-life cases through interviews and investigative journalism, have been wildly well-received, earning both critical and audience acclaim. 

Part of the appeal of such programs is the adrenaline rush that true crime stories give viewers, says Scott Bonn, a criminology professor at Drew University. 

"The public is drawn to true crime because it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us – fear," Professor Bonn writes for Time. "As a source of popular culture entertainment, it allows us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real." 

True crime documentaries can also provide audience members with a chance to get involved in the investigation themselves. 

"Viewers who wouldn't normally be amenable to the often lurid nature of traditional true crime broadcasting or publishing – where creators are often exploitative and giddy in their reciting gory details or making light of crimes and tragedies – are gravitating to the genre as it gets smarter," said Michael Arntfield, a former police detective and professor of literary criminology at Western University in Ontario, Canada, to NBC News. 

"The new format, with the lingering question mark, serves as a prompt for viewers to get involved and do their own research – to come to their own conclusions," he continues. "Viewers in turn become more than just viewers; they see themselves as constituents in the process, and in the case itself."

Some of the most popular true crime series have even provided new evidence or inspired real-life action: Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction was the topic of the first season of "Serial," received a new trial in part thanks to the podcast; fans of "Making a Murderer" petitioned the White House to pardon the show's subject, Steven Avery; and the producers of "The Jinx," the HBO miniseries about real estate heir Robert Durst, were praised by the former Westchester County district attorney for doing "what law enforcement in three states could not do in 30 years."

Whether "The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey" will have a similar impact remains to be seen. 

"This little girl's homicide, to this date, has been unresolved," says retired FBI forensic linguist Jim Fitzgerald in the series' trailer. "In my opinion, I think we can change that right now." 

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