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Count on a Grand Jury to Indict Anyone; Innocent People’s Lives Destroyed

JonBenet Ramsey was the 6-year old beauty pageant contestant who was murdered in 1996 in her home in Boulder, Colorado.

As her parents grieved, the media decided that the parents were guilty of killing their daughter. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their son were vilified although there was no evidence linking them to the crime. The lack of evidence did not stop a Boulder (not so) grand jury from voting to indict JonBenet’s family, accusing them of knowingly and recklessly placing JonBenet in a situation that led to her murder.

As I have written before on this site, there is a saying: “a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich”. In other words, a grand jury is inherently unfair, one-sided and totally lacking in fundamental fairness to the accused and will indict virtually anyone for any crime, even when no evidence exists.

Fortunately, in an extremely rare and commendable act of professionalism and courage, Mary T. Lacy, the then District Attorney, refused to file charges against the Ramseys. Ms. Lacy later wrote to John Ramsey, JonBenet’s father, stating that the Ramsey family was “vindicated”  and that “no innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion”.

Of course, the fact that DNA testing proved that JonBenet’s parents did not commit the murder, the media continued to suggest that they were guilty. It was shameful and disgraceful. The presumption of innocence did not apply to the Ramseys. The letter was sent in 2008; Mrs. Ramsay passed away in 2006.

I am reminded of the sad and disgraceful case of the late Richard Jewell, a security guard (and former sheriff’s deputy) at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.  Mr. Jewell was a genuine hero after pipe bombs exploded during the summer games.  He rushed in, with no regard for his own safety, to help others escape injury and death.  Remarkably, after initially declaring him a hero, the media decided that Richard Jewell was the likely bomber, as soon as it was learned that the FBI were investigating him.  For almost three months, Richard Jewell was publicly “trashed” on a daily basis.  Finally, the United States Attorneys office issued a letter to him, stating that he was not a target of the federal criminal investigation and several lawsuits against specific media companies were settled with payments to Mr. Jewell.  Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue in 2006 made a public statement thanking Richard Jewell for saving lives at the 1996 Olympics.  Richard Jewell was 44 years old when he died.

The sad fact is that innocent people are frequently wrongly accused of heinous criminal acts.  And although they may be eventually vindicated – though often they are not –  their lives may be irreparably ruined as a result of the false accusations.  It is naïve to assume that prosecutors and judges are always interested in fundamental fairness for an accused person.  Too many prosecutors are only interested in “winning”, even though their ethical duty is to ensure justice and not merely to obtain convictions.  After 40 years as a criminal defense lawyer, I have sadly found that too many judges – state and federal – simply go along with whatever the prosecutors want to do in order to move cases along.

Your criminal defense lawyer is all that stands between you and the punishment for a crime – whether you have committed it or not. While I am convinced that a good and experienced criminal defense lawyer will do everything possible to keep false accusations from becoming public, it is often impossible.  Then, your lawyer should be able and willing to represent your interests well with the media, using discretion and proper language so that the public, when reading or hearing about your case, will immediately be reminded of the presumption of innocence and the fact that being accused of a crime does not mean that the person is guilty of the charge.

Jeff Weiner