WE MAY OR may not have found JonBenet Ramsey's killer in John Mark Karr, the former schoolteacher who publicly stated last week that he'd been with the child when she died in the basement of her Boulder, Colo., home in 1996. Some suspect that he's simply a wannabe, and it's not your average American pedophile who answers media questions as Karr did when he was arrested Aug. 16 in Thailand. But no matter what the new investigation turns up, many Americans will never reverse the conviction of the suspect they nabbed long ago, Patsy Ramsey.
Ramsey, who died in June from ovarian cancer, always maintained her innocence. "You can darn well guarantee that the minute I walk through the pearly gates, I'm going to say 'Why did this happen? Please tell me now,' " she told the Rocky Mountain News in 2000.
From the time JonBenet's body was found, investigators and the media focused almost exclusively on her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, as the perps, and the rest of us were happy to go along for the ride. Even after a grand jury and later a federal judge said evidence didn't support the theory, the general public had other ideas, especially when it came to Patsy.
A former Miss West Virginia, Patsy began entering her daughter in pageants when JonBenet was 5. JonBenet was crowned Little Miss Colorado and National Tiny Miss Beauty. Whatever effect the competitions had on JonBenet -- and from what we know, she seemed to enjoy the pageants enough -- the widely published photos of an alarmingly made-up preschooler effectively pronounced Patsy guilty.
In the collective public imagination, any mother who would dress up her daughter like a tiny drag queen and have her perform sultry moves before a panel of judges was already, in some sense, a murderer.
The nation was exposed to image upon image of a little girl in high heels and teased hair, displaying a coquettish smile she surely didn't pick up from "Sesame Street." In one particularly memorable video clip, JonBenet, outfitted in a tight, pink cowgirl get-up, sang "I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart."
THE PEDOPHILIC undertones and general cheesiness were at the least grotesque. In the context of a child's murder, the equation was all too easy to work: A child beauty queen, we reasoned, is an abused child. When an abused child dies, the obvious culprit is the abuser. Ergo, blame the mother. Now there's an American pastime that surely predates baseball. Pointing fingers at moms probably even went on during the Paleolithic era; if some young Neanderthal displayed poor motor skills in his cave drawings, you can bet mama Neanderthal took the heat for spending too much time gathering berries outside the home.
These days, thanks to celebrity scolds like Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura, not to mention the increasingly vocal breastfeeding lobby (did you hear? a high percentage of Harvard rejectees were given formula as infants), we now have an unofficial consensus that mothers are to blame for everything except maybe global terrorism -- and, come to think of it, can't we blame Osama bin Laden's mom for that?
Blaming mothers is such a cliche by now that even as we give it credence, we tend to laugh it off. But the case of JonBenet remains an extraordinary example of our unwillingness to give mothers a break.
Granted, JonBenet's minor celebrity, and the provocative images that surrounded it, may well have made her more vulnerable to pedophiles than some children. But most children who are victims of pedophiles dress and act like regular children. Most of their parents, rightly or wrongly, also are held to some degree of accountability, even if their only crime was letting a child walk to school alone.
Patsy Ramsey may have been leading her daughter down a questionable path, but she was hardly the first mother to channel her own unrealized aspirations through her child. That her dreams involved sequined gowns and tiaras rather than, say, playing the violin or gymnastics, made her enough of a pariah that too many of us were unable to separate the makeup artist from a murderer. That the facts never supported her guilt didn't matter to most of us. Bin Laden himself could have released a tape saying he'd killed JonBenet and we'd still blame Patsy.
As for the sudden emergence of Karr, it's mysterious and undoubtedly ratings-boosting for media organizations everywhere -- and also likely to be tragically irrelevant.