"Find the Killer"

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THEIR TURN: The Ramseys told Walters they would take polygraphs; their memoir appears this week

More than three years after she was bashed and garroted, she still smiles from tabloids, book covers and TV screens. Joyce Carol Oates has called JonBenet Ramsey "the most famous little girl of our time," and we should be forgiven for being sick of her image.

But the worst thing about media saturation is that it can impart so few actual facts. Polls show that most Americans made up their minds quickly that John and/or Patsy Ramsey had killed their daughter. The Ramseys haven't quite entered the harsh terrain of the American mind where O.J. Simpson burns, but they have tarried near the border. Last fall, after a grand jury finished a long investigation that failed to produce indictments, even the Governor of Colorado spent a few days publicly attacking the Ramseys for not cooperating enough with authorities.

But did they really kill her? This week the Ramseys begin a drive to convince us that they had nothing to do with JonBenet's slaying. Their memoir The Death of Innocence goes on sale March 17, and the same day the Ramseys begin a string of TV appearances with a 40-min. Barbara Walters interview on ABC's 20/20 Friday.

For the most part Walters sets aside the "What kind of tree would you be?" questions in favor of tough interrogation. Why does the crime scene appear staged? John Ramsey: "Why would I ... have staged this horrible scene and then disturbed it myself--pulled the tape off her mouth, carried her upstairs... If I'd have staged it, I would've wanted the police to see it as I staged it." O.K., but why did you try to fly to Atlanta shortly after the body was found? "We had been asked to leave the house," he explains. "We had nowhere to go. We [had] lived in Atlanta for 25 years."

Why let JonBenet wear those "perverted" costumes at the beauty pageants? "There is something wrong here if someone thinks that looks perverted," Patsy says. "JonBenet was an entertainer ... Little girls play dress up." In a comment that didn't make the final version, John says he told his daughter to focus on her talent routines, not the feathers and sequins. Most important: If you didn't kill her, who? The Ramseys have investigators hunting. Says John: "It's a male. It's a pedophile ... I don't know that I knew this person or not. I hope I don't." He and Patsy, he adds, want to work with the police to "find the killer."

While preparing for the interview, ABC journalists turned up tidbits that will be new to all but JonBenet junkies. For instance, the network will air never published photos taken outside JonBenet's house the morning after she was killed that are remarkable for what they don't depict: snow. One of the most damning pieces of evidence against the parents has been the absence of footprints leading to the house. No footprints, no intruder. But the pictures show only patches of snow that could have been avoided. (By the time the media had camped outside the house, however, there was plenty of snow.) The Ramseys tell Walters they believe the killer could have entered and hidden in their huge, rambling house hours before killing JonBenet.

What about that wordy ransom note, which included suspiciously personal details about the family? Walters quotes "law-enforcement sources" as saying the handwriting similarities between Patsy Ramsey and the note's author have been "grossly exaggerated." Walters leaves it at that, which is a bit out of context: police handwriting analysts never definitively claimed Mrs. Ramsey wrote the note, only that they eliminated every suspect but her.

In general the Ramseys fare well before Walters. The couple picked a lovely location for the interview, a room so serene and spotless it could be a priest's quarters. They are also dressed perfectly, Patsy wearing just the right touch of pink lipstick. They don't sob and shout, yet they aren't passionless. At one point, Patsy leans over in tears onto John's shoulder, and he mumbles something treacly--and acted?--about JonBenet being "with us" in spirit. But Walters says the Ramseys believed the cameras had stopped.

In fact, Walters found the Ramseys "credible" overall, and she has helped produce a sympathetic package that could go a long way toward softening their image. She points out that the couple showed up to meet her without an attorney. "I have never done an interview with someone--not that I can remember--who was under the umbrella of suspicion without a lawyer present." And Walters has interviewed a long list of suspected lowlifes: Claus von Bulow, Imelda Marcos, Michael Milken. Says Walters: "Even Monica had a lawyer."