28 August 2006

What can we make of Karr's 'confession'?

Did John Mark Karr kill JonBenet Ramsay or not? CyberShrink tries to make sense of Karr's "confession" and testimony.

According to statements attributed to Thai investigators, his "confession" included details that seem oddly inaccurate. For instance, he apparently said he had picked her up at school before taking her to her home, where he drugged her and had sex with her, and that her death was "accidental". But she died the day after Christmas, when she would not have been at school, and an autopsy reported no traces of drugs or alcohol in her body.

Though he claims to have had sex with her, though small vaginal abrasions were described on autopsy, no semen was found in or on her. But then sex need not have included ejaculation, and the autopsy findings were equivocal about this. And there was no reason to believe the death, by slow strangulation with a garrotte, could have been "accidental". DNA samples were apparently taken from under her fingernails and from within her underwear, and of course whether or not such samples match Karr's DNA, will be of crucial importance.

If indeed (and there seems to be no obvious reason to disbelieve these reports) he has been deeply absorbed in the JonBenet case for years, and reading all the masses of published material about it, one wonders why he would have made some of these apparent errors in his statements to police. His mannerisms in the news footage have seemed oddly calm, wistful, compliant, almost eager to please. Someone who was, for whatever reason, too eager to comply and please the authorities, can indeed make a false confession, incorporating details picked up from the questioner.

'I love her'
"I am so very sorry for what happened to JonBenet. It's very important for me that everyone knows that I love her very much, that her death was unintentional, that it was an accident." He told reporters: "I was with JonBenet when she died"

At present, of course, we know very little about the details of what he actually said, and how he was interrogated and treated before making his confession. Conditions in a Thai jail could be so unpleasant, that a guy we know had some reasons to feel guilty (his prior child pornography problems in the USA), might have been tempted to confess sufficiently to get extradited to the U.S.A, and could even have deliberately included some errors so as to make it easier to repudiate the confession later when in safer territory.

A colleague of mine (we both sit on the Scientific Advisory Board of an organisation concerned with similar issues), Richard Ofshe, a professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, has said: "There's something going on here that's very strange ... and no reason on God's green earth to assume that this is a voluntary confession".

His long, revealing, and perhaps ultimately self-incriminating e-mail correspondence with the Colorado Professor may seem strange, but is understandable. Guilty people (and innocent but deluded individuals convinced of their own guilt, and consumed by it) have often found ways to make semi-confessions, or to continue a revealing dialogue with someone. And it isn't unusual for a killer to even taunt the police or other authorities, with messages. Like some of the messages in red ink apparently sent by Jack the Ripper, or the scrawled "Stop me before I kill again" messages from the Boston Strangler; there can be an element of gambling with discovery and capture, with ambivalence about the impulses which led to the crime(s).

Odd events
But some aspects of the events are odd. Most people who confess, either voluntarily (whether driven by guilt or other motivations) surrender themselves to the authorities, rather than acting so evasively for years and travelling overseas. And people who make false confessions, especially those seeking publicity, have, of course, to walk into a police station and surrender - they don't have to be fetched from the other side of the world.

Like Ofshe, I am bothered by the wording of those parts of his statements released on television. Calling the death an "accident" and "unintentional" strongly reminds one of the technique used in police interrogations, to suggest that maybe the crime was unintended and accidental, to enable the suspect to admit to what might feel to him like a lesser offence. That's right there in commonly used police interrogation manuals. And when he is reported as having told the police that what he did, deserved a charge of "second-degree murder", this is really peculiar. Neither killers nor deluded wannabe's tend to confess to second-degree murder.

At the time of the death, the child's mother found a peculiar and rambling three-page letter claiming the girl had been kidnapped; presumably comparisons will be run with Karr's hand-writing and style. It's hardly credible that the note was written by anyone other than the killer or an accomplice. One source quotes Thai police as claiming that he said he meant to kidnap the girl for $118 000 ransom, but that she died when the attempt went wrong. But if you are intent on kidnapping a girl for ransom, and will presumably hold her captive elsewhere - why would you pause to drug and rape her in her own home?

'My beauty queen'
One report claims that Thai police have said that the girl died accidentally from an overdose of chloroform he used to subdue her before raping her, and that after sex he realised he had accidentally killed her. He apparently insisted that they "loved each other" and that she was his beauty queen.

That someone took a sexual interest in the child is credible, especially as we have seen so many pictures and film-clips of the child taking part in gaudy and, to many of us, utterly tasteless costumes, posing and dancing in junior beauty pageants. She appeared to be being presented in a prematurely adult and sexualised manner in such garish events, and publicly displayed in this manner.

Meanwhile, the former Ramsey home in which JonBenet died, is standing empty, on sale for $1.69 million, and again visited by sightseers. – Prof M.A. Simpson, CyberShrink

Related articles:
Karr: The suspicious subject

(August, 2006)


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