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Caution urged on Ramsey confession

Some question suspect's motives

John Mark Karr, the suspect, was ushered through a crowd of media yesterday at the immigration department in Bangkok.
John Mark Karr, the suspect, was ushered through a crowd of media yesterday at the immigration department in Bangkok. (Saeed Khan / AFP / Getty Images)

BOULDER, Colo. -- For a moment, it seemed the decade-old mystery surrounding the slaying of a child beauty queen had been solved. But authorities cautioned yesterday against rushing to judge the schoolteacher who made a stunning confession that he killed JonBenet Ramsey.

For now, the only public evidence against John Mark Karr is his own words. And questions have been raised about the details of his story, including whether he drugged the 6-year-old girl, sexually assaulted her, or was even in Colorado at the time of the slaying.

Those questions led some to wonder whether Karr was the answer to the long-unsolved slaying or a disturbed man trying to insert himself into a high-profile case.

``We should all heed the poignant advice of John Ramsey," said Mary Lacy, the Boulder County district attorney, quoting the little girl's father. ``Do not jump to conclusions, do not rush to judgment, do not speculate. Let the justice system take its course."

Paraded before a crush of reporters in Bangkok, the sullen Karr told how he loved JonBenet and was with her when she died, but that her death was an accident. And while vague on the details he answered flatly when asked whether he was innocent: ``No."

``The bottom line is that they now have a confession, and until and unless they can corroborate that confession with either physical evidence or strong circumstantial evidence, that's all they have," said Scott Robinson, a Denver lawyer who has followed the case.

Karr told investigators he drugged and sexually assaulted the little girl before accidentally killing her in her Boulder home, according to a senior Thai police officer who was briefed about the interview with US authorities.

Yet JonBenet's autopsy report found no evidence of drugs, saying her death was caused by strangulation after a beating that included a fractured skull. And while it describes vaginal injuries, it makes no conclusions about whether she was raped. Investigators later concluded there was no semen on JonBenet's body.

According to Thai police, Karr also said he picked JonBenet up at school and took her back to her home. But the slaying occurred during the holiday recess, on Dec. 26, 1996 .

Karr's former wife , Lara Knutson, told television reporters that she cannot defend him, then insisted he was with her in Alabama that Christmas , when JonBenet's body was found in the basement of her home. Authorities have not said whether Karr could have written the detailed ransom note found in the Ramsey home, with its demand for $118,000 (the bonus that had recently been awarded to the girl's father).

Even the Colorado professor who swapped four years' worth of e-mails with Karr and brought him to prosecutors' attention in May refused to characterize the suspect either as a killer or a kook.

``I don't know that he's guilty," said Michael Tracey, who teaches journalism at the University of Colorado. ``Obviously, I went to the district attorney for a reason, but let him have his day in court and let JonBenet have her day in court and let's see how it plays out."

Karr himself added to the mystery, saying JonBenet's death was ``not what it seems to be."

Asked what happened when JonBenet died, he said: ``It would take several hours to describe that. It's a very involved series of events that would involve a lot of time. It's very painful for me to talk about it."

Karr's background includes an arrest in Petaluma, Calif., in April 2001 on five misdemeanor counts of possession of child pornography, to which he pleaded not guilty. The terms of his release included avoiding child pornography and places where children congregate, such as schools, beaches, and parks.

Any previous relationship between Karr and the Ramseys remained a mystery yesterday, though both have ties to suburban Atlanta. Lacy refused to discuss the case during a brief news conference and suggested Karr's arrest may have been forced by concern over public safety and fears the suspect might flee.

``There are circumstances that exist in any case that mandate an arrest before an investigation is complete," Lacy said.

Karr, 41, was arrested at a Bangkok apartment Wednesday, a day after he began teaching second grade at an international school, Lacy said.

Hours later, Thai authorities sat him before a crowded room of news crews. Karr stunned reporters by stating: ``I was with JonBenet when she died. Her death was an accident."

``I am so very sorry for what happened to JonBenet," Karr said.

Thai police said Karr told them the slaying was only second-degree murder. One legal specialist suggested his confession was geared to spare him a first-degree murder charge.

``He seemed convinced that what he said would make him guilty of a lesser crime," said Sharon L. Davies, a former prosecutor at Ohio State University's law school who has studied confessions. ``It's hard to understand how that would be the case and how the physical evidence that has been at least reported about her killing would support his description of this as an accident."

Legal specialists said DNA evidence will probably be key: DNA was found beneath JonBenet's fingernails and inside her underwear, and authorities have never said whether it matches anyone in an FBI database. US and Thai officials did not directly answer a question about whether there was DNA evidence connecting Karr to the crime.

Karr was given a mouth-swab DNA test in Bangkok, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation . The results of that test were not immediately known. Karr will be given another DNA test when he returns to the United States in the next several days, the official said.

Karr will be taken within the week to Colorado, where he will face charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and child sexual assault, Ann Hurst of the Department of Homeland Security told reporters in Bangkok.

Lin Wood, the Ramsey family's longtime lawyer in Atlanta, said Karr went to great lengths to conceal his identity in e-mails to Tracey, the Colorado professor, going so far as to use a computer server in Canada.

Asked whether authorities could tell whether Karr had firsthand knowledge of the killing or had just picked up information from news accounts, Wood said, ``There is information about the murder that has never been publicly disclosed."

Karr's former wife was quoted by San Francisco television station KGO as saying she was with her former husband in Alabama at the time of JonBenet's killing and she does not believe he was involved in the homicide.

Denver lawyer Larry Pozner, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said there were ``serious questions" about the case.

``I hope we have found the murderer of JonBenet, but I have not heard the evidence that compels that conclusion," he said.

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