JonBenet Ramsey

The family of JonBenet Ramsey has been formally cleared of any role in the 6-year-old's 1996 murder, a Colorado prosecutor announced Wednesday, citing newly discovered DNA evidence.

The Christmastime slaying triggered a global media frenzy and a controversial investigation that long focused on the child's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, and JonBenet's brother, Burke.

Boulder, Colo., District Attorney Mary Lacy said in a statement Wednesday that DNA evidence recovered from the child's clothing pointed to an "unexplained third party." Lacy apologized to the family for the suspicions that made their lives "an ongoing living hell."

"The Boulder district attorney's office does not consider any member of the Ramsey family, including John, Patsy or Burke Ramsey, as suspects in this case," Lacy said in a public statement. "To the extent that this office has added to the distress suffered by the Ramsey family at any time or to any degree, I offer my deepest apology."

The decision comes 12 years after the murder, a period that spanned the 2006 death of Patsy Ramsey, 49, and the arrest of a teacher in Thailand, who was quickly cleared and released. John Ramsey found his daughter beaten and strangled in the basement of the family's Boulder home on Dec. 26, 1996. Patsy Ramsey said she discovered a ransom note demanding $118,000 for her daughter.

John Ramsey was not available for comment Wednesday. The family's longtime attorney, Lin Wood, said the district attorney's decision marked a welcome milestone in the family's "long and lonely journey" that continues along with the search for the child's killer.

"I'm just sorry that Patsy Ramsey is not here to read the (district attorney's) letter," Wood said.

The new DNA evidence was recovered in March, using a relatively new technique known as "touch DNA," in which genetic material was obtained from cell scrapings on long johns the child was wearing at the time of her death, Lacy said. That material matched an unknown male profile previously identified from two sites on the inside area of the child's underwear.

"The unexplained third-party DNA on the clothing of the victim is very significant and powerful evidence," Lacy said. "It is very unlikely that there would be an innocent explanation for DNA found at three different locations on two separate items of clothing worn by the victim at the time of her murder."

Wood said the new evidence, which he described as "irrefutable" in clearing the Ramseys, would be checked against other profiles in the national DNA database managed by the FBI.

"The potential for this to be resolved is there," Wood says, adding that he plans to meet with Ramsey next week.

"I've never seen John exhibit bitterness or anger," Wood said. "These people had a dignity about them, an unusual grace under fire."