(Reuters) - A Colorado prosecutor said his predecessor's decision not to prosecute the parents of slain child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was made because of a lack of evidence to prove the case, but could not say if he would have made the same choice.
In his first comment since the unsealing of papers on Friday that showed a grand jury had voted to indict Ramsey's parents in 1999, Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett noted that prosecutors face a higher burden of proof than a grand jury.
The papers, unsealed following a court order, show that a grand jury decided there was probable cause to charge John and Patsy Ramsey with child abuse resulting in death and accessory to the murder of their 6-year-old daughter. But the couple were never prosecuted, and were ultimately cleared.
In an opinion piece in the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper, Garnett said his two predecessors' decisions not to pursue charges showed they "believed that the evidence did not rise to the necessary level to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at a jury trial."
"I don't know if I would have made the same decision, but I know how difficult these decisions are," he said.
Patsy Ramsey reported her daughter missing early on the morning of December 26, 1996, telling police she had found a ransom note on the stairs asking $118,000 for her daughter's return.
That afternoon John Ramsey discovered the girl's body in the basement of their home, covered by a blanket, a cord around her neck, wrists bound and duct tape over her mouth. An autopsy showed she died from strangulation and a skull fracture.
The crime dominated the news media, with cable TV news networks showing videos and pictures of the child's beauty pageant career. But no one was ever charged.
Alex Hunter, the district attorney at the time, declined to sign the indictment from the grand jury or prosecute the Ramseys, citing a lack of evidence. In 2008, another Boulder County prosecutor cleared the couple of any involvement.
Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer in 2006 at the age of 49. John Ramsey, 69, remarried in 2011 in Michigan where he had moved his family not long after JonBenet's death to work at a computer company.
After becoming district attorney in 2009, Garnett said his office again examined the Ramsey case but found there were no possible charges for which the statute of limitations had not run out or for which there was "conclusive evidence."
"My or my staff's view of what the evidence in the Ramsey case proves will only be stated in open court if a case is ever filed. In the meantime, everyone, including the Ramsey family, is entitled to the full presumption of innocence," Garnett said.
He opposed the unsealing of the grand jury's decision following a request by a Daily Camera reporter, citing the need to "protect the viability of grand jury secrecy." He also said the unsealing had virtually no legal precedent, and that he would only release the papers with a court order.
John Ramsey had also opposed the release of the court papers and said that if the unsigned indictments were made public they should include the entire grand jury record for context.
The four pages unsealed on Friday offered little insight into the grand jury's thinking, containing only the bare charges with no supporting facts.
Garnett said in his article that the public sometimes misunderstood the limitations of his office and the justice system.
"District attorneys are not priests; our job is not to forgive, and rarely to 'exonerate' and straying from this role can be very confusing to the public and can create false impressions of certainty about uncertain evidence," he said.
"Without a verdict at a jury trial, or a plea of guilty, the justice system provides no meaningful resolution of any particular case."
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)