Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eric Rudolph: Serial Bomber

Wrongly Suspected Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell
Richard Jewell

In the first few days after the bombing, Richard Jewell was lionized. He was a hero since he had first seen the suspicious object and alerted others to it. Several TV networks and newspapers interviewed him. He had helped to save lives that might have been otherwise lost. The quick-thinking Jewell, who had previously worked as a North Georgia sheriff's deputy, seemed to have a bright future ahead in law enforcement.

But only three days after the explosion, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story saying that police were investigating the possibility that Jewell had planted the bomb.

FBI agents interviewed Jewell, and their aggressive questioning led him to ask for an attorney. An obviously offended Jewell adamantly told reporters that he was innocent.

Doubts swirling around Jewell may not have been entirely unreasonable. There is a well known phenomenon of people who so desperately desire to be proclaimed heroes that they deliberately cause crises so they can intervene in them.

On July 31, 1996, FBI agents searched Jewell's apartment. A large crowd of journalists and camera people hovered nearby as the security guard's property was hauled away as evidence.

Bombing victims Lorenzo Espinosa and Nancy Davis filed suit against Jewell in August 1996. Espinosa also sued AT&T, Anthony Davis Associates (company hired to provide security personnel) and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. Davis also sued AT&T and Anthony Davis Associates. Things appeared grim for Richard Jewell. Then on August 20, retired FBI agent Dick Rackleff, who had been retained by Jewell's legal team, announced that Jewell had passed a polygraph.

A few days later, Jewell's mother, Barbara Jewell, appeared on television. She was weeping as she asked President Bill Clinton to exonerate her son. But U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno refused to clear Jewell or apologize to him.

Judge Owen Forrester
Judge Owen Forrester

On October 23, US District Judge Owen Forrester was making a ruling on an FBI request and said he thought Jewell was not, at that time, a suspect. On October 26, U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander told Jewell that he was no longer under investigation.

Both the Espinosa and Davis lawsuits against Jewell were dismissed in November 1996.

The hero was a genuine hero but one who had lived for months under a very dark cloud.

Jewell appeared at a televised news conference. Wearing a simple, white- and blue-striped shirt that was open at the collar, Jewell said, "I am not the Olympic Park bomber. I am a man who has lived 88 days afraid of being arrested for a crime I did not commit."

Sometimes tearful, Jewell went on to criticize both the FBI and the news media for how his case was handled. He said the FBI latched onto him "in its rush to show the world it could get its man." He also said the news media distorted his background to show he fit the profile of a bomber. "Let the headline be based on the facts," he told them. "Don't shape the facts to fit the headline."

Contrary to previous suspicions about him, Jewell claimed he had never sought the limelight of heroism on the night of the bombing. "I set out to do my job," he stated firmly, "and do it right."

In August 1997 Attorney General Reno publicly apologized to Jewell and deplored the leak to the media that made his name known as a suspect. "I regret very much the leak that made him an object of so much public attention," Reno commented. "I don't think any apology is sufficient when somebody has gone through . . . what Mr. Jewell has gone through."

Jewell got a job with a police force in Luthersville, Georgia, in November 1997. Luthersville is a small town some 50 miles south of Atlanta. In May 1998 he helped unblock the airway of a choking baby brought to the Luthersville Police Department by the infant's frantic parents.

The falsely accused Jewell filed several lawsuits against organizations he contended had libeled him, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Piedmont College (at which he had worked as a security guard), ABC, CNN and NBC. The newspaper and the television stations were accused of libeling him in their reporting, while Piedmont was accused of giving out misleading information about his conduct when employed there. Piedmont, ABC, CNN and NBC all reached out of court settlements with Jewell. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution fought the charges.

At one point, the judge in the case of Richard Jewell v. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fulton County State Court Judge John Mather, ordered Journal reporters to name sources for articles about him. They refused. He ordered them put in jail for contempt of court, but the newspapers immediately appealed and the order was stayed.

The judge ultimately decided in the newspaper's favor, ruling that Jewell was a "public figure" at the time the newspaper reported on him.

Jewell's attorneys appealed that ruling to the Georgia Court of Appeals. The newspaper appealed Mather's ruling that journalists had to disclose confidential sources to the same court.

The Georgia Court of Appeals handed two victories to the newspaper. It reversed the lower court's ruling that the reporters had to divulge their sources while upholding its judgment that Jewell was a public figure. Jewell has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision holding that he was a public figure. They have not done so yet.

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