The governor has ridiculed her, former colleagues have criticized her, and constituents have demanded that she be run out of town.
But Boulder County Dist. Atty. Mary Lacy on Tuesday defended her decision to arrest John Mark Karr on suspicion of killing 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey -- a move based solely on his repeated confessions to a journalism professor he had contacted by e-mail and phone.
Those confessions were lurid, but not always accurate or telling. For instance, Karr claimed to have suspended JonBenet by her wrists as he slowly choked her for his sexual pleasure, but the autopsy noted no marks on the girl’s wrists. He also said he took JonBenet’s “knickers” as a souvenir, but offered no proof or description of the underwear.
Still, Lacy said, she deemed him credible, in part because he was truthful when discussing other aspects of his life and in part because she mistakenly believed he had disclosed information only the killer would know. Those details, such as a description of JonBenet’s gold bracelet, turned out to be in the publicly available autopsy report.
The case against Karr collapsed Saturday morning when tests showed he was not the source of unidentified DNA found mixed with a drop of JonBenet’s blood at the crime scene. Lacy held that information quiet for two days while she contacted JonBenet’s father, John Ramsey, and the professor who had kept up a four-year correspondence with Karr. On Monday, she dropped the case against the 41-year-old teacher.
At a brief hearing here Tuesday afternoon, Karr sat silently in a blue jumpsuit as a judge ruled that he would be extradited to California within two weeks to face child pornography charges dating to 2001. He could get up to a year in jail if convicted on those counts, all misdemeanors.
Since Karr’s arrest in Thailand two weeks ago -- which Lacy followed with a news conference in Boulder -- critics have suggested she could have found quieter ways to investigate the suspect in the decade-old slaying. In particular, they argued, Lacy should have arranged for Karr to be taken into custody on the pornography charges while she continued to investigate his possible links to the killing.
On Tuesday, the district attorney dismissed that idea as impractical. Arresting Karr for fleeing prosecution in a 5-year-old misdemeanor case would have been not only highly unusual, but also costly and time-consuming, she said. The case would have become a federal matter, subject to international extradition treaties. “It would have greatly slowed down the process,” she said.
Instead, Lacy and her team laid out a 98-page affidavit detailing Karr’s e-mailed confessions, including one in which he said he’d like Johnny Depp to play him in a movie about his life. A judge found probable cause to order Karr’s arrest, and he was taken into custody in Bangkok on Aug. 16.
Lacy estimated the total public cost of the investigation, including Karr’s plane ticket back to the U.S., at $13,000.
Colorado’s Republican Gov. Bill Owens on Monday called the tab “extravagant” and an incredible waste of taxpayer dollars; he said Lacy, a Democrat, should be held accountable. “The hysterics surrounding John Mark Karr served only to distract Boulder officials from doing their job,” he said.
Addressing the governor’s criticisms, Lacy said she thought he would have a different view if he understood why her office had to act. At a news conference Tuesday, she said: “Every one of you here knows that hindsight is 20/20, and you know after the game is over it’s easy to criticize what people have done and what decisions have been made.” She looked weary, but her voice was calm and measured.
“What I can assure you,” she said, “is that very intelligent, educated, experienced people consulted on a daily basis.... We didn’t go into any of this without talking and thinking about it.”
Saying that she understood the vitriol directed at her office, Lacy explained: “I’m not embarrassed. I feel bad for a community that questions what I did.”
As for why she moved so quickly to arrest Karr -- rather than keeping him under surveillance while she investigated his claims -- Lacy suggested her hand was forced. Once she shared Karr’s e-mails with Thai authorities, the government designated him “an undesirable person” and would have expelled him within days, she said. Also, Karr had begun to lavish attention on a 5-year-old girl he had discussed being attracted to in one of his e-mails. Lacy said she consulted a forensic psychologist who warned her that Karr might be “escalating” his dangerous behavior.
“All I ask is, before you become judgmental, place yourself in our position,” Lacy said. “Would you have behaved differently?”
Lacy, 56, came to office vowing to avoid the spotlight, a deliberate break from her predecessor’s habit of holding forth freely, even on sensitive cases. “I have no intention of ... being on ‘Geraldo,’ ” she said shortly after her election in 2000.
A veteran prosecutor of sex crimes, Lacy established her own investigative team within the DA’s office so she wouldn’t have to rely solely on police work. She also made it clear that she did not buy into the prevailing police theory that JonBenet’s parents probably were responsible for the girl’s death. She met with the Ramseys and brainstormed with their private investigators.
In late 2001, the Ramsey case was temporarily eclipsed by accusations that several University of Colorado football players had raped a young woman.
Four months later, the district attorney announced she did not have enough evidence to file criminal charges. Even as she dropped the case, however, Lacy called the alleged victim “a hero.” And she suggested, though she offered no evidence, that the football program had a long tradition of wooing recruits by plying them with beer and sex.
Those comments drew sharp criticism from some local attorneys and from legions of University of Colorado fans.
Despite the uproar, Lacy was reelected in 2004. Term limits will force her from office in January 2009. In the meantime, Lacy said, she intends to continue pursuing JonBenet’s killer.
Asked whether she had any thoughts of resigning over her handling of Karr, the district attorney laughed.
“You do your best with what you have in the moment,” Lacy said. “I think we did a good job for the community.”