News - The wheels of justice

After five years, Richard Jewell v. AJC a long way from over

It’s been five years since the Centennial Park Olympic bombing, an explosion that killed two people and transformed Richard Jewell from anonymous security guard to hero and then — inaccurately, as it turns out — to goat, all in the course of a few days.

In the ensuing years, Jewell has gone on with his life; he’s now a police officer in northeast Georgia, and in September, he’ll marry a social worker employed by the state Department of Family and Children Services.

“He’s able to compartmentalize, to block out memories of the bombing and the attacks on his reputation,” says Lin Wood, lead attorney in Jewell’s multimillion dollar libel lawsuit against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a lawsuit that is well into its fifth year and whose case file has climbed to 27,000 pages. It could be another two years before the case goes before a jury — if it ever does. While other news outlets have long since settled with Jewell, the AJC fights on, adamant that its coverage of Jewell as a suspect in the bombing was on the mark.

“Whether it was fair or not for the FBI to investigate Jewell the way they did, the fact is the AJC had a right and indeed a responsibility to report on that, and the Journal-Constitution did so accurately and responsibly and fairly,” says the paper’s attorney, Peter Canfield.

Canfield’s assertions notwithstanding, the AJC’s coverage was not without errors. For instance, the day the paper broke the story that Jewell was the focus of the investigation into the bombing, a secondary story painted him as an attention-grabber, a person who had sought the limelight in the days following the bombing.

It was stories such as this — and other coverage that compared Jewell’s case to that of serial killer Wayne Williams, and that said Jewell fit the profile of a lone bomber — that Jewell contends defamed him.

Why Jewell’s lawsuit has yet to come before a jury comes down to two fundamental disagreements about the rules of battle. One is whether Jewell should be considered a public or a private figure. When it comes to libel cases, that’s an important distinction. To prove they were libeled, private individuals need only show their reputations were injured by a negligently published inaccuracy in a story. Public figures, however, have a higher burden: To prove libel, they need to show that the publication in question acted maliciously, or with a reckless disregard for the truth, when it published false statements.

In Jewell’s case, the two sides are arguing which category he fit into in the days immediately following the bombing. In 1999, Fulton County State Court Judge John Mather, citing the numerous interviews Jewell gave in the days after the bombing, ruled the security guard became a public figure. Mather wrote that Jewell’s actions showed a “well-intentioned attempt, utilizing his newfound prominence, to effect damage control of the public’s perceptions.” In a supporting brief, Canfield said Jewell’s exposure would “inspire envy in the savviest pundits.”

That’s hogwash, says Wood, Jewell’s attorney. Jewell, he says, never sought any publicity following the bombing, but rather was helping his employer, who was farming Jewell out for interviews. And in those 10 interviews, Wood says, Jewell answered only three questions pertaining to Olympic security — hardly enough to elevate Jewell to the status of somebody trying to influence the public outcome of an event.

The second sticking point concerns the paper’s use of unnamed sources in characterizing Jewell as a suspect in the case. In 1999, the Jewell side chalked up a victory when Mather ruled that the AJC must disclose where it got the information on which it based its stories. While Wood agrees that his client was a suspect, he claims the AJC went too far by saying Jewell fit the profile of a “lone bomber,” and by saying that his case was evocative of the Wayne Williams case. Further, Wood wants to know the sources because he suspects the reports were based on nothing more than “rumors circulating within the Atlanta Police Department.”

Canfield, however, is appealing Mather’s ruling, saying that disclosing the identity of the sources is irrelevant, since the information they gave was accurate. Jewell was a suspect, after all. As for the Wayne Williams comparisons, that column’s writer, David Kindred, nowhere said Jewell was the bomber. In fact, with statements such as “Maybe he’s the bomber, maybe not,” Kindred was clear in showing that the identity of the bomber was still unknown, the AJC contends.

Still, his column raised enough doubts among copy editors that day that four of them “felt it was libelous and tried to have it killed and it was recklessly ignored,” Wood says.

Of the two issues now being considered by the Appeals Court, the more important one for the future of Jewell’s case is deciding whether he is a public or private figure, Wood says.

“The public/private issue permeates the entire case,” he says. But for his client to win punitive damages (if the case ever gets to trial), Wood knows he’ll need to prove malice, whether Jewell is considered a public figure or not. Lawyers for both sides aren’t expecting a decision on their appeals for several months.

In the meantime, the AJC last Friday noted the fifth-year anniversary of the bombing with a front page story updating readers on the hunt for Eric Rudolph, the man authorities believe is the true bomber. In the story, witnesses recall the scene just before the explosion.

The reporter, Marlon Manuel, writes that “a knapsack had been spotted under a park bench” — the knapsack that was rigged to explode.

Lost in the passive voice, though, was one bit of history that still haunts the AJC: The man who spotted that ticking bomb, and who evacuated a nearby tower, was Richard Jewell.

To read the AJC, you’d think he never existed.??

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