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Burden of Proof

Boulder County D.A. Alex Hunter Discusses the JonBenet Ramsey Case

Aired April 17, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PATSY RAMSEY: The police that were there the morning of the 26th, taking evidence, have a lot of tangible evidence. They did a good job at collecting evidence. We have fibers, we have DNA, we have a lot of evidence. The problem was that then they did not take the evidence to where it would lead.

STEVE THOMAS, FORMER RAMSEY CASE DETECTIVE: Anybody in the house was a suspect in a crime such as this, but as the evidence -- as the detectives saw it, and as others advising us saw it, did not lead us towards an intruder.

JOHN RAMSEY, AUTHOR, "THE DEATH OF INNOCENCE": What we need to know is, what do they want? They can't just say we haven't cooperated and not tell us what they want. Cooperation is a two-way street. We've done everything that they've asked. We want to continue to do everything that they need to find the killer of our daughter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: More than three years after the death of JonBenet Ramsey, books, a miniseries and a longstanding dispute between the police and the parents still focus the nation on Boulder, Colorado.

Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: the district attorney of Boulder County, Alex Hunter.

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

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Roger is off today.

Since December 26, 1996, police in Boulder, Colorado, have been investigating the murder of a 6-year-old girl. The child, as we all know, was JonBenet Ramsey.

The case is still open. According to police, her parents remain under a, quote, "umbrella of suspicion." Boulder County D.A. Alex Hunter joins us today here in Washington.

Alex, thank you for joining us.

ALEX HUNTER, BOULDER COUNTY DISTRICT ATTY.: It's good to be here.

VAN SUSTEREN: Alex, there are so many murders in this country, why do you think this one became a national story?

HUNTER: I think if we took JonBenet's outfits out of the equation, the still photos, the videotapes of her in the little pageant competitions, that this would have been another one of the very sad 2000 murder cases, child murder cases that occurred in 1996. That's what I think.

VAN SUSTEREN: But you know, it is interesting that you say that. Patsy and John Ramsey say they have been critical of the media for going over and over on those outfits, saying if this were a little boy in a football uniform, we would not be focusing on that.

HUNTER: Well, I think that this sort of sexual implication of those photographs really got to the American people. And I think the media churned it and it just became -- it just became a frenzy. I mean, I don't have to tell you, it was everywhere on every tabloid, it's been on every tabloid, you still can see it today. I noticed some photographs, you know, the book writers used these photos in their books and it has, I think, been the major catalyst.

Without that, I mean there are many more uglier, horrible cases involving the murder of children than this one. I can remember in Denver there was a case worse than this, and where in final arguments in Denver, death penalty phase, three or four reporters there, we have a ridiculous motion going on in Boulder that didn't mean anything really to the case, and there were 120 media people covering it, and satellite trucks, and it's just a high-profile case, triggered I think by that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now I'm not going to ask you to name names since I know that you can't do that as prosecutor. But having investigated the case, do you think you know who did it?

HUNTER: You know, I really don't want to answer you on that. You know, the problem is, and some of this most recent book, you know, this detective is promoting a book based on his feelings. And that's not the way we solve cases, and not the way we work cases in America. You have to put your feelings aside.

Obviously I have feelings, but one of the challenges for me has been to say to detectives and, frankly, to prosecutors, stay neutral, because if you are not neutral, then you don't put your heart and your brain into following the evidence, you get caught up in things you shouldn't get caught up in.

VAN SUSTEREN: But there's a difference between being neutral, and sort of following the trail of the evidence, and obviously, as a prosecutor, you have an inside scoop that no one else has, and it is not unreasonable to think that you have, you know, the evidence that leads into a particular direction but you can't legally prove it, but in your heart and mind you think this is the person who did it.

HUNTER: Well, you know, we all have feelings, and I think we all are governed, to some extent, by our hearts and how they tug and push us and pull us, but, you know, I think the American prosecutor has to be very careful to keep the team, if you will, the people that are working the case from getting too caught up in feelings.

I read something about one of the detectives had on his computer screen, "The Ramseys did it," and that played over and over and over again. And you know, if you are constantly being propagandized that way, or if the leadership in a police agency is so sold on a viewpoint, then I don't think we get the objectivity that these kinds of -- well, any criminal case deserves if we really mean what we say about the importance of liberty.

VAN SUSTEREN: You talked about Steve Thomas, who is the detective who has recently written a book, and in fact you've been quoted as saying he's a tormented soul. I read his book and I got the sense from his book that he was convinced there's probable cause to indict Patsy Ramsey, but that he didn't quite understand that probable cause doesn't necessarily mean you can prove something beyond a reasonable doubt, vastly different standards.

HUNTER: I mean, how can you have -- one of the problems in this case is that this particular detective had never handled a homicide case, and wasn't a very experienced detective, even in narcotics and some of these other things that he did. Mostly patrol officer during his stay at the Boulder Police Department.

Here is a man, I remember saying to him one day, you know, his position was there's probable cause, arrest them, let them hear the clang of the jail door, and that will break them. I said, "Detective, in Colorado, and in other places, you know, the D.A. is going to have to show to the court that the proof is evident, and presumption is great. You don't have it. Go work this case."

And now in this book, he lays out, for example, the linguistics and the Don Foster stuff, straight from the confidential police file, involving inadmissible evidence, and for him, you know, you read the book, for him that's sort of the key to a theory.

It's a shame. And he is tormented, and he is one of these guys that made up his mind early on. He sees things black and white, and frankly, you know, there are so many lessons to be learned in this case, and this book by a detective, using confidential information, I hope will provide many lessons for police departments and prosecutors across this land this should not happen. There needs to be agreements, contracts entered into, just like we do with CIA and Secret Service people, concerning information that's in the public trust. This can't happen again.

VAN SUSTEREN: He was on "LARRY KING" on Friday night, and Lin Wood, who is also the civil attorneys for the Ramseys was on as well. And he has said that he intend to file a civil lawsuit against Steve Thomas of behalf of the Ramseys. What do you make of that? Will that, in some way, resolve some of the issues you have with Steve Thomas and the book?

HUNTER: No, I don't think -- you know my -- I feel, you know, I have accused him of sort of pecking at the bones of a sweet little dead girl, and I'm not going to come off of that. But I also feel some compassion, some empathy for him because he is like a number of other wounded along the road. The only thing that I always try to keep in mind is that it's JonBenet that's dead. That's the, you know, the ball that our eyes should be on, instead of out promoting a book clearly for profit.

I mean, if he had issues about his department or about my department, for example, he accuses one of my best deputies, a guy who has been a career prosecutor for 25 years, of engaging in colloquy with absolutely no evidence. And as you know, if you think somebody is engaging in colloquy, in other words, sharing the guts of the case with the opposition, there's a remedy for that. There's the Supreme Court Grievance Committee. But, of course, that wouldn't allow him to pedal this book. The book is filled with allegations like that. I mean, he really has soiled the case.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we are going to will take a break. Up next, the Ramseys say they'll submit to a lie-detector test. But will such a test be permitted in court? Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

On this day in 1996, a California jury sentenced Erik and Lyle Menendez to life in prison without parole for the murders of their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers. You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log on to CNN.com/Burden. We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time.

If you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.

Recently, John and Patsy Ramsey said they were willing to take a polygraph test. But if their lawyers can agree on terms with the Boulder police, would it aid the investigation at this point?

First, let me ask you, Alex: Do you think today, at this moment, a polygraph examination will be done on both John and Patsy Ramsey?

HUNTER: I'm not sure I would want to bet my meager savings on that. You know, my capacity with the chief is as an adviser. And in the beginning, I was really concerned that, you know, we were dealing, first, with something that was not reliable, and secondly, and ultimately something that would not be admissible. So, you know, why get the public all sort of excited about that because I think generally the public thinks that a polygraph answers lots of questions.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it in Colorado, then, a polygraph is inadmissible in a criminal case.

HUNTER: Inadmissible.

VAN SUSTEREN: What if the two parties...

HUNTER: Can't stipulate to it because...

VAN SUSTEREN: They cannot stipulate?

HUNTER: No, because it is an issue of reliability, and it is the Fry Doberton (ph), and actually in Colorado both those evidentiary standards -- they are kind of, it is not clear cut which one applies. But the bottom line is, it is an issue of reliability that the lawyers can't stipulate away.

But interestingly, in Boulder, one of our felony district court judges a year ago in a case deemed polygraph reliable. And when I sat with Chief Beckner and my prosecutors, and four, actually four, experts from the FBI, I came away from that feeling much more comfortable, in terms of quality control and some other issues, that I had about reliability. But, still, inadmissible, but you know John Ramsey says: What good is it? Why should I take it?

And I think my argument, and I have shared this with Lin Wood, is that, you know, if John is concerned about lack of objectivity on the part of some people, and frankly I haven't heard that complaint about the prosecutors, it seems to be more directed toward the police, and I have said, you know, the police, for the last 18 months, have been following the direction of the prosecutors, and I do feel it's been an objective investigation. But take a polygraph, pass the polygraph, I think that would go a long way toward persuading the police to keep their minds open.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let's look at the flip side, and obviously...

HUNTER: There is a flip side.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... it is simply a hypothetical. But suppose that John and Patsy take the polygraph and one of them fails. In what way does that effect either the possible prosecution or even the investigation by the police?

HUNTER: Well, I have to, you know, in fairness, I have to be concerned about how that would taint a jury pool. And I have a lot of confidence that good lawyers and a good judge can weed out people that have been impacted by something like, say, failure on a polygraph test.

But you do have to worry because of the perception I think the public has about polygraphs sort of being fool-proof, that you would taint the pool.

VAN SUSTEREN: What I'm curious about, and of course I don't know, and I don't know if you know, but no defense lawyer ever offers a polygraph unless he or she has had a dry run. Do you know if there's been a dry run?

HUNTER: I don't know that, but I can't imagine -- I can't imagine, frankly, the lawyers, having provided original advice about taking a polygraph. I just -- It is hard for me to imagine.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me turn to the other, what I find particularly significant piece of evidence: the ransom note. In the Ramsey book, Patsy and John Ramsey write that John has been excluded from being the author of the note. And that Patty, on a one to five scale, five meaning excluded, hit 4.5. Do you endorse those two findings? Is that...

HUNTER: Well, I think that's close, but I think that this is a mumbo jumbo area, and we saw Judge Matsch in the McVeigh case, you know, not allow this handwriting stuff in. And I think it is stuff.

Frankly, if we ever have a trial here, and ransom note were to become a key piece of evidence against anybody, I would want the jury to be able to look at that, and hopefully be able to look at historical writings, and make sort of their own judgments.

I think these handwriting guys, you know, they have tried to build reliability in order to meet Fry and/or Dolbert, and in doing what, they have created such standards that -- Well that's why Matsch, I think, looking at his ruling, wouldn't allow that. He let the jury look at the note, or the writings, and make their own judgments.

So I think an awful lot is made of that, when in fact I'm not sure we are ever going to be able to get before a jury what these various handwriting people say about where they fit on a scale.

VAN SUSTEREN: we are going to take a break. During parts of the Ramsey investigation, Alex Hunter was criticized for communicating with the tabloids too much and not communicating enough with the police enough. We will ask Alex Hunter, when we come back.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: On behalf of two Massachusetts residents, the ACLU goes to court tomorrow in an effort to overturn the Commonwealth's 38-year ban on tattoos. Why was tattooing originally outlawed in 1962?

A: The practice was banned in the wake of a hepatitis scare. The suit challenges the ban on First Amendment grounds.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Welcome back to BURDEN OF PROOF. Our guest today, Alex Hunter, the Boulder County district attorney.

Alex, what about -- I want to go back to this ransom note. Has linguistics expert looked at to try to identify whose voice it is? HUNTER: You mean who the writer is?

VAN SUSTEREN: Right.

HUNTER: Yes.

VAN SUSTEREN: And?

HUNTER: And I'm not going to talk about that because it's part of the case file. But certainly, you know, from the investigation standpoint, psychological linguistics, the style of the writer, punctuation, use of exclamation marks, for example, within punctuation, paragraphing, spelling all of those things are significant.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do they point in one direction? I mean, all of those little pieces of evidence.

HUNTER: Well, let me go to kind of the end of the question, and that is, even if they did -- and one of my issues with this book by this detective which, hopefully, you know, other police departments are going to use to make sure it doesn't happen to them -- that's not admissible at present in our courts. No court in the land would allow a linguist to come in and to take a look at historical writings and look at the, you know, the subject document and give an opinion. We would not be able to meet the reliability standards. And I think someday we will be able to do that. They're doing a lot of it in Europe. So...

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it the classic -- what I -- what it seems like from Steve Thomas, the detectives -- and other theories have been floated out there -- the classic problem that seems to develop in Colorado between the police and your office is that there's that big rift between probable cause and ability to convict.

HUNTER: I mean, frankly, I think that's a little unfair. I think that's Thomas' difficulty. But the detectives that I've been working with -- Wickman, Gossage (ph), Harmer, Trujillo -- these are officers that are highly qualified, very experienced, who know exactly the difference between probable cause and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. They've never had a problem. But, you know, this detective, for some reason, got caught up in thinking that if it's more likely than not, 51 percent, that somebody did something, that under our system of criminal law that's enough, which, of course, is ridiculous.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me turn a corner to the issue of speaking to the "Globe."

HUNTER: Right.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you do that?

HUNTER: I did that.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, and why did you do that? HUNTER: Because they had a million-dollar reward and they were getting hundreds of tips a week, which they were sorting through and giving to me. And I never turned any reporter -- that's the only tabloid, by the way, I ever talked to, because this Thomas accuse me of doing, you know, a dance, a dalliance with the tabloids.

In fact, the "Globe," with their million-dollar reward, I hoped would break the case. I've always believed in crime stoppers where we use rewards of $1,000 and break murder cases. And I figured, with a million, if there was something out there about a pedophile or somebody out there -- usually it's somebody who has a big mouth who's bragging about something that they did -- that we would get a break in the case. So I had very open communication with several of the "Globe" reporters. I never met with them when they didn't have something to give to me.

I can remember one of the more significant things is that they were the ones that found the source of the garrote, the rope source in one of the stores in Boulder. We hadn't found that. They found that. So I have -- you know, I have no apologies for that. I mean, I think it makes nice reading for this book of entertainment that this cop is putting out, but a prosecutor is not going to close his doors -- or shouldn't, in my judgment -- to information that might advance the -- now, you know, it does have a little kind of seedy side to it because I see these tabloids do stories that seem to be based on nothing.

VAN SUSTEREN: But let me -- in the 15 seconds we have left, let me ask you the semi-unfair, look-into-the-crystal-ball. Yes or no: Do you think there will ever be a conviction in this case?

HUNTER: You know, I think there will be. I think we should not give up hope. You know, a lot of people think this is on the shelf. There are lots of cases that have been solved after many years. I think this is one of those. It may take us a few more years.

VAN SUSTEREN: Thank you, Alex Hunter, because that's all the time we have for today.

Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE," the roller-coaster ride on the stock market: How will it affect you and the economy. That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific. And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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