Credit: Brandon Anderson/Null Value on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)–One of the most frustrating situations for cops is when they know for certain that two people were present at the scene of a crime but only one of them is guilty, and neither of them is talking. Usually, this happens when the guilty person persuades the innocent one that if they stick together, neither one can successfully be prosecuted because they can each claim that the other one committed the crime.
I call this the cross-finger pointing trick because the case is virtually unprovable so long as the innocent buddy agrees to serve as the guilty person’s built-in reasonable doubt.
Defense attorneys love this trick. And they have a sarcastic saying that sums up the tactic nicely: “Nobody talks, everybody walks.” Many times it’s public defenders pulling the stunt — which means your tax dollars at work.
In gang-violence cases when suspects try to get everyone to clam up, cops can sometimes pressure at least one suspect to roll on the others. But when there are only two suspects, and they’re family members, police have a tougher time getting access to either one alone to solicit the truth.
In Florida, law enforcement officials have long been frustrated in their efforts to solve the 1997 disappearance and possible murder of “baby Sabrina.” Sabrina’s parents, Steve and Marlene Eisenberg, have denied any involvement in the crime, but have not been cleared. One explanation for why no charges have been filed is that police believe one of them is responsible, but if they pursue charges against the mother, for example, she can point the finger at the father, and vice versa.
Similarly, the murder of Martha Moxley in Greenwich, Conn., in 1975 went unsolved for two decades. Police knew that one of two brothers from the Skakel family (celebrated Kennedy-related neighbors of the victim) was likely responsible for Moxley’s death, but they could not be certain that a trial against either one would be successful because each brother could demonstrate reasonable doubt by pointing a finger at the other. Tommy Skakel was the last person seen with Moxley, but there was evidence implicating Michael Skakel, too.
Michael Skakel was eventually tried and convicted in 2002, after making enough damning statements about his involvement to tip the scales firmly in favor of prosecution. Unexpectedly, and to the credit of either the Skakel family or Michael Skakel’s attorney, Mickey Sherman, Michael Skakel did not falsely point the finger at Tommy during trial.
Most Famous Example
The most famous cross-finger pointing case is surely that of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old girl who was murdered and sexually assaulted in her own home on Christmas night in 1996. Most people believe that one of the parents, John or Patsy Ramsey, killed JonBenet; and if this is true, the cross-finger pointing trick could explain why neither parent was ever charged with a crime.
While John and Patsy Ramsey were never formally charged with murder or found guilty of any wrongdoing, it was revealed for the first time in January 2013 that a grand jury indicted both parents for the child’s death in 1999. Charges were never filed because then District Attorney Alex Hunter refused to sign off on the indictment, perhaps because he knew the cross-finger pointing trick would stymie any effort to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt against either parent.
Let’s play this out. Assume, hypothetically, that John Ramsey killed his daughter. One way for him to avoid being charged would be to make sure the evidence suggested that Patsy Ramsey was involved, too. If, for example, he instructed Patsy Ramsey to write the infamous ransom note, and forced her to help with the cover-up, John Ramsey could easily demonstrate reasonable doubt by pointing at that evidence to imply that his wife was the real killer. The murkier the evidence, the more effective the cross finger-pointing maneuver, and as the case unfolded, things became even murkier.
On the one hand, Vanity Fair published a story that said Patsy Ramsey gave inconsistent statements about whether she found the ransom note before or after she noticed her daughter missing from her bed. And former detective Steve Thomas wrote a book opining that Patsy Ramsey killed JonBenet because she was enraged about the child’s bed-wetting.
Refusal to Answer
On the other hand, investigators confronted John Ramsey at his lawyer’s office about unusual Israeli black wool sweater fibers they discovered in the crotch area of the underwear JonBenet was wearing when her body was found. They told him the fibers matched one of his sweaters, but John Ramsey refused to answer questions or explain how the fibers got there.
He might have argued that it was no big deal because he lived in the same house with his daughter, and the clothes might have landed in the same laundry basket. But the underpants were a size 12 (much too large for a 6-year-old), and were taken from a brand new package that Patsy Ramsey had recently bought at Bloomingdales as a gift for JonBenet’s older cousin.
After refusing to answer questions about the sweater fibers, John Ramsey and his lawyer, Lin Wood, did what lawyers do when investigators back the suspect into a corner: They filibustered and used profanity. John Ramsey said, “That’s bullshit,” and Wood fulminated about how he couldn’t possibly answer questions without seeing the forensic report. Suffice it to say that if they had an innocent explanation at the time for such damning evidence, there would have been no yelling and no blather. If they have one now, I wish they would say so.
Despite the fiber evidence, if police believed John Ramsey killed his daughter, Patsy Ramsey‘s seeming involvement would continue to frustrate prosecution efforts because of the very real risk that John Ramsey could prevail at trial by pointing the finger at his wife. Indeed, Patsy Ramsey‘s red sweater fibers were found at the crime scene too — on duct tape that covered the child’s mouth and intertwined in the ligature around the child’s neck. It’s not as damning as the black fibers in the underwear, but it suggests Patsy Ramsey‘s contact with the child’s body in the aftermath of her death, which is good enough if you’re trying to muddy the water about who did what.
Wendy Murphy represents victims of violent crime in civil and criminal litigation and is an adjunct professor at New England Law|Boston, where she teaches a seminar on sexual violence law and the criminal justice system. She appears regularly as a legal analyst on network and cable news programs, and has worked for Fox News, CNN, NBC, and CBS.
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