By Bill Hewitt
July 28, 2008 12:00 PM

The discovery on Dec. 26, 1996, of the body of JonBenét Ramsey in the basement of her family’s home in Boulder, Colo., touched off a frenzy of national coverage. The 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant had been bludgeoned, strangled and possibly sexually abused; a rambling ransom note was found at the scene. In short order a cloud of suspicion descended on JonBenét’s parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, a cloud that could not be banished even when authorities tried and failed to indict them in 1999.

But on July 9, Boulder D.A. Mary Lacy announced that at long last there was enough evidence to clear both John, 64, and Patsy (who died of ovarian cancer in 2006). Lacy announced that using a technique called “touch DNA” analysis—in which invisible deposits of genetic material are recovered from surfaces—scientists had found samples on the waist area of the long johns that JonBenét was wearing when she was killed and that the samples did not match anyone in the Ramsey household. The samples did, however, match genetic material that was mingled with a drop of JonBenét’s blood that had earlier been found on her underwear, leading Lacy to conclude that the new DNA belonged to the killer. “It is the responsibility of every prosecutor to seek justice,” said Lacy, who apologized to the Ramseys for what she called the “ongoing living hell” they had endured.

Some experts questioned the decision to clear the Ramseys, cautioning that it’s possible that the recovered DNA could have come from someone other than the killer. Still, John Ramsey told Denver TV station KUSA he was “grateful” for the news and hoped that eventually the killer could be found by matching the DNA with the growing number of samples taken from convicted felons around the country. “Conviction is still not a certainty,” says Denver criminal-defense attorney Scott Robinson, “but with what they have, it’s going to be awfully hard for even a clever defense attorney to explain away.”