I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to casting aside my loved ones — and better judgement — to watch the latest in a slew of JonBenét Ramsey-centric docuseries: CBS’s The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey. With the twentieth anniversary of the perfect American crime and the resulting memorable media circus approaching, it’s no surprise how the media is capitalizing on it — or the lengths they’re willing to go to to get half-ashamed voyeurs like me to watch it.
Namely, the pigskin-with-a-wig scene.
It’s logical that the Ramsey case would be discussed more than ever this year, not just because it’s the 20th anniversary, but also because of the success of FX’s The People vs. O..J. Simpson and ESPN’s O.J.: Made In America, both of which focused on the only case from the ‘90s more famous than Ramsey’s. The difference is the lack of juicy angles, especially considering that all evidence points to a massive cover-up within the Ramsey family, and no engaging courtroom angle (a highlight of People vs. O..J.) because there was never any formal ruling on who murdered the six-year-old pageant queen the day after Christmas on 1996.
This leaves CBS tasked with two challenges: Find an angle that the other docuseries haven’t and, of course, wrangle up enough new evidence on the cold case to make it worth for viewers to tune in. If part one of the six-hour-long, two-day series is any indication, they’ve risen to the occasion, almost shamelessly so.
To set itself apart from the litany of productions being released this year (Investigation Discovery, Dr. Phil, CourtTV, among others), CBS enlisted New York prosecutor and retired FBI agent Jim Clemente and Scotland Yard criminal behavioral analyst Laura Richards to reexamine the Ramsey case. The team the network assembled is certainly qualified and Part One does uncover some compelling new evidence in the 911 call placed by JonBenét’s mother Patsy Ramsey, revealing a possible conversation the family had after the mother believed she had hung up. Tomorrow will feature an even deeper dive into the case and the use of DNA technology, but there’s more than enough to feast upon from night one, including dramatic interviews with peripheral friends, a life-sized reconstruction of the Ramsey home on the day of the murder and, most eerily, a reenactment of what the investigators think happened to JonBenét.
Another of the new theories presented last night was that despite strangulation being ruled as the cause of death, forensic pathologist Werner Spitz believes she was actually murdered by the severe blow to her skull, and the indentation matches that of a flashlight found in the home. Some investigators believe that the strangulation was staged in order to mislead the Boulder investigators in 1996, but how can they prove that this blow could have killed JonBenét?
Enter the pigskin-with-a-wig scene.
Clemente and Richards construct what they believe to be a semi-realistic replica of a six-year-old’s skull, wraps it in some pig’s meat, and then plops a blonde wig on the contraption in a misguided attempt to make it look less horrifying. Then, to support their theory that it could have been JonBenét’s nine-year-old brother Burke who killed his sister with the flashlight, they hire a random ten-year-old boy to attempt to crack the skull of their Frankenstein’s monster. The doe-eyed kid obliges, and crack!— the would-be JonBenét skull cracks like an egg, theoretically supporting the team’s theory. Sure, it’s definitely one thing we haven’t seen during the hundreds of hours of television devoted to the case over the past 20 years, but in this instance, the cost of an interesting angle borders on tastelessness.
Allow me to repeat: they recreate JonBenét’s skull and then show a child actor breaking it with a flashlight. In a month packed to the gills with sensational new takes on the case, this is the most shameless so far.
This isn’t to discount the work that Clemente, Richards, and their team are doing in the two-part docuseries. It’s possible that this test could make a lot of sense to conduct in their industry, but showing it to the public? In a society where you can air almost anything without someone batting an eye, reducing a murdered child to a skull wrapped in pig’s meat and a wig feels incredibly reductive. Whacking a child’s skull swathed in pigskin to get the public’s attention could nearly serve as a metaphor for the case’s two-decade saga in the 24-hour news cycle. No killer was ever identified and many speculate that if it weren’t for manipulation of the press, the case may have ended quite differently for the Ramsey parents. Is this a counter to Dr. Phil being the one to get the interview with brother Burke? Is it to counter Court TV’s case that Patsy Ramsey may have had a stalker that factored into the murder?
This is where those covering the JonBenét case can’t take the same track as the filmmakers who contributed to the influx of O..J. Simpson investigations in the past year. In the Simpson case, the villain is clearly implied; it’s O..J. himself, which allows investigators to be harder on him while usually relegating his victims, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, to secondary characters in sweeping narratives about media frenzy and the hubris of celebrity. Conversely, JonBenét is the star of her own murder; she’s a six-year-old beauty queen with there being only two things certain about her killing: It was suspicious, and it was through no fault of her own. It’s here, in sequences like the gussied-up pigskin, where CBS denies the victim the dignity and justice that still hasn’t been delivered while giving the impression that’s precisely what they’re trying to do.
One thing is for sure, though. Regardless of whether or not CBS’s squirm-worthy pigskin experiment pays off in tonight’s episode, the media is still far from done exploiting one of America’s sweetest murder victims.