A Justice Deffered:
O.J. and JonBénet In Retrospection
Twenty years ago, a girl was murdered. JonBenét Ramsey, a child beauty queen from Boulder, Colorado, was killed in her home on Christmas Day. In the months that followed, a flurry of accusations and assumptions grew, amplified by the news media’s coverage of the case and subsequent trials. The unsolved case of JonBenét Ramsey has been firmly lodged alongside other highly sensationalized murders — the trial of O.J. Simpson, the Zodiac killings, and the Black Dahlia, to name a few. These cases continue to fascinate popular culture years, and in some cases decades after their occurrences. Now, the case of JonBenét returns to televisions across the country in a slew of special programs, promising new evidence, new interviews, and an end once and for all.
Four different television presentations will air during September and November, each with its own collection of specialists returning to the case in an attempt to solve it. The first, A&E’s The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered, premieres on September 5th, followed by Investigation Discovery’s JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery on September 12th, the six-part CBS docuseries, The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey, beginning on September 18th, and, finally, Lifetime’s Who Killed JonBenét?, airing November 5th. And if their various trailers hold any indication, the same fervor that surrounded the case in 1996 is poised to captivate the masses once more.
Mind you, this is hardly revolutionary programming—throughout human history, homicides (especially unsolved ones) have been proverbial catnip for news sources and audiences alike. More recently, programs like Netflix’s Making a Murderer and the This American Life’s spinoff radio show Serial have not only brought suspiciously handled cases back in vogue, but also profoundly questioned the finality of a court’s decision. In both instances, the cases were either reopened or overturned, hinting towards the realization of a justice that was rejected the first time around.
ESPN Films’ five-part documentary series O.J.: Made In America screened at the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals, and FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, while it didn’t reopen the infamous 1994 case, has nonetheless elevated a real life tragedy to Emmy-winning television. Dick Wolf’s Law & Order empire has ruled NBC and syndication airwaves since its genesis in 1990, and true crime dramas have become a staple of nearly every network TV lineup year after year.
But most television is only goes as deep as fiction, with no real threats to viewers, save a reckless imagination. The real life murder of JonBenét, on the other hand, is harrowing. Her status as a well-known child beauty pageant star only emphasizes the brutality of her death. Her Christmas card smile and pristinely coiffed hair paint the portrait of the little girl down the street, a kind of eerie perfectionism that only exists on boxes of cookies and children’s cereals.
“She’s not gotten justice yet,” says Jim Clemente in the trailer for the CBS program. Now retired, Clemente was an FBI agent who was assigned to the case in 1996, one of several original investigators who are “re-uniting” for the three-part special.
Each of the four programs possess a unique twist on the topic, from the introduction of new theories to a general rehashing of the material in order to identify not only what went wrong in the case itself, but who the real murderer is. It’s relevant to note that the trailers that precede them emphasize a relinquishment of all the unnecessary elements surrounding the case — namely, the sensationalism of the media that solidified it as a national event.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore that sensationalism, and it’s in part what made the case so riveting in the first place. The public scrutinized the potential suspects, including most notoriously JonBenét’s own parents. The strange collection of evidence and the potential mistreatment of the crime scene colored the outcome of the case — the false confession of John Mark Karr in 2006 was striking in the amount of attention it received. Despite his lack of useful information and unreliable narrative, the frenzy that surrounded his supposed involvement was unprecedented, and later dubbed “the greatest media embarrassments in modern history” by the Washington Post. All the unending rabbit-holes and red herrings made for great television twenty years ago, and the anniversary of the murder makes the opened-ended case even more tantalizing now.
When comparing the the stories (and subsequent revivals) of JonBénet Ramsey and O.J. Simpson, the question of privilege cannot be ignored. Both cases come out of a lifestyle most would consider well-off: JonBénet in a spacious, recently purchased home in Boulder, Colorado, Simpson in a stately, since demolished mansion in Brentwood, California. JonBénet was a child pageant queen, and O.J. a celebrated football star, each with a laundry list of records and honorary titles that continue to define their legacies, however brief or tragic.
While the case involving JonBénet certainly played on her status as a child beauty queen, her bright, doe-eyed face spread across gossip magazines, O.J.'s was far more pointed. It's certainly not a coincidence that the very first episode American Crime Story opens with the infamous footage of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers, an event that, alongside the acquittal of all of the officers involved, would later trigger the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. This parallel sets the tone for the season that follows, establishing American Crime Story as unafraid to address the racial tension embedded in the O.J. Simpson case. Born into a world where Internet-based social movements adroitly document and disperse instances police violence, American Crime Story immediately connects today's audience to the the social atmosphere of the U.S. in the 90s through a medium that's central to modern social justice movements, a portable camera. It's a show that is acutely self-aware of its surroundings, both as a historical drama and a contemporary critique, with the ability to comment on the existing milieu without drowning you in it.
In contrast, the questions remains how the upcoming programs on JonBenét’s case will discuss her family’s socio-economic background, if they do at all. Commentary on the Ramsey's class or race, and even JonBénet's role in an industry many consider vain and dehumanizing, all teem with the makings of think pieces, if examined correctly. In short, just how self-aware will all four of these programs be? Is the goal simply to finally discover the true motive or murderer, or will they carve out the negative space surrounding the events, linking it to one of those grand narratives of justice or social privilege?
The troupe of JonBenét Ramsey docuseries’, just like their true crime TV counterparts, pull audiences in with assurances of definitive answers and a final conclusion. At its worst, these programs seek to solidify an addiction for lurid, glamorized reworkings of previously glamorized true crime. Under the guise of an anniversary, the unsolved death of JonBenét is revisited, as faceless, heartless corporations drown in ratings cheaply acquired through lofty slogans that guarantee they’re getting to the bottom of it this time.
Less cynically, however, these upcoming programs, alongside the Serials and American Crime Story’s of the world, point toward a desire for justice, an undercurrent so strong and so apparent, it’s been a part of the American psyche since the nation’s very beginning. Granted, the stories are different, but the threads of media sensationalism, injustice, and the gnawing sensation of a deferred resolution tread through each of them.
Together and in their own way, these programs seek resolution, the end to the persistent and tormenting reminder of a story left fragmented. By putting the pieces back together again, they hope to find something missed the first time around, something that will lead to the conclusion that’s been so sorely unresolved for all these years. How the JonBenét anniversary specials seek to conclude the case remains unseen for now, but their intentions to do so resonate with the dozens of unsolved stories like it and the ache for justice that rests in their shadows.