Sob On Someone Else’s Shoulder, Richard Jewell

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Richard Jewell has slimmed down, moved out of his mom’s apartment, gotten married, and become a sworn law-enforcement officer. But he’s got one big life’s goal left yet — more important, apparently, than fading from public memory.

Jewell and his attorneys insist on raiding one more deep pocket to compensate for his travails ten years ago. And it’s that pursuit against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I’m afraid, that wipes out any sympathy I might have for someone who by all accounts is just another ordinary Joe done wrong by the FBI and Janet Reno’s Department of Justice.

In an interview this weekend with Harry R. Weber of The Associated Press — an interview, to be fair, that AP initiated by walking unbidden into his office and one that he initially resisted — Jewell groused that he will be forever identified as the wrongly accused suspect in the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The bombing left one person dead and 111 injured.

“The heroes are soon forgotten. The villains last a lifetime,” Jewell told the AP. “I dare say more people know I was called a suspect than know I was the one who found the package and know I was cleared.”

Jewell, now 43, told AP he never considered himself a hero, but by contemporary American standards his actions that fateful evening may even overqualify him for the title. He was working as a security guard when he discovered the suspicious backpack containing the explosive device, and saved many lives by quickly and efficiently evacuating the immediate area.

The clueless FBI, watching Jewell’s obvious pleasure in the spotlight as he hop-scotched from appearances from CNN to the “Today Show,” quickly focused on Jewell as a principal suspect, according to a later chronology of the whole mess by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility. The famous FBI “profilers” in Quantico, Va., also agreed that Jewell’s actions and security guard job put him under suspicion.

Within 72 hours, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution came out with an extra edition naming Jewel as the “focus of the federal investigation into the (bombing) incident.”

Predictably, the reporting, which was soon replicated by some other news organizations, touched off the worst of pack journalism. Dozens of camera trucks parked outside his apartment, even as the FBI made no apparent move to arrest, let alone charge, Jewell.

It was media hell, but also attention that served to focus attention on the shortcomings of the case against Jewell. When, three months later, the FBI exonerated Jewell, and Reno herself apologized to him, this was a huge media moment, even if Jewell himself does not seem to remember it that way.

Virtually his first move after exoneration was to go after some media deep pockets by filing libel suits. NBC was first, reportedly settling $500,000. CNN followed with an undisclosed amount.

Jewell attorney L. Lin Wood Jr. wasn’t shy about the legal strategy at work.? We?re going to sue everyone from A to Z,” he declared after the NBC settlement.

A college that once employed Jewell as a security guard forked over more cash. At one point, Wood filed a $15 million suit against the New York Post over an editorial cartoon that didn’t even caricature Jewell or mention his name.

Then this duo bumped up against the Journal-Constitution. At first, they seemed to have some traction, but they couldn’t get around two inconvenient truths. One, Jewell would have to prove actual malice because had made himself a public figure, even offering unsolicited interviews to newspapers and other news organizations. Two, the newspaper was right — Jewell was a focus of the federal investigation and the FBI did believe he fit a bomber’s profile. The newspaper only reported accurately the FBI?s inaccurate insights.

Jewell’s case should have disappeared at least by 2001 when an appeals court noted that while he had suffered “considerable anguish” under the media eye, the continuing coverage had also restored his reputation. “His role in these events has once again been depicted as the positive role it was originally believed to be,” Judge Edward H. Johnson wrote.

An attempt to force the newspaper to reveal its law enforcement sources were wisely beaten back by the courts.

But the case keeps coming back, and only a few weeks ago, on May 26, Wood was back before the State Court of Fulton County in Atlanta arguing that a few videotaped depositions by Journal-Constitution copy editors are somehow evidence that the newspaper acted with actual malice, that is that they either knew the paper’s reporting was false, or went ahead with publication with reckless disregard to its truth or falsity.

The New York Times, in an article by Brenda Goodman, reported the May hearing on the newspaper’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. It appears that Wood has plenty of nothing in those depositions. What they show, by the evidence of the article, is a newspaper carefully considering how to report or comment on the suspicions the feds had about Jewell.

Judge John Mather has an opportunity, ten years on, to at last dismiss this clear loser of a case. Richard Jewell, too, should take it as an opportunity to get on with the rest of his life.

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