The next exhibit coming to the Museum will have a portion of it devoted to the 1996 Olympics. The first Olympic Torch Run originated with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and during the 1996 torch run, the relay came through Thomson and Dearing. We’ll have on display some artifacts from both Olympics. Five of the six community heroes who carried the torches in 1996 are now in the same Sunday School class in Thomson. One runner was Darrell Wells, who represented Dearing, and the other five are just by accident in the Friendship class at the First United Methodist Church. That had no bearing on why they were selected; they’re all just good folks, including Darrell.
But today I want to know if you have you ever heard of someone who was accused of a crime by the media before the actual facts were known? A situation that could be called a “trial by the media”? Here’s one. There are others.
In an article in “The New York Times” dated August 30, 2007, it was reported that Richard A. Jewell died the previous Wednesday at his home in Woodbury, Ga. He was 44. The coroner in Meriwether County said that Jewell died of natural causes. He said Jewell had suffered kidney failure and had had several toes amputated since he had been diagnosed with diabetes. Jewell’s transformation from heroic security guard to Olympic bombing suspect and back again came to symbolize the excesses of law enforcement and the news media.
The paper said “the heavy-set Mr. Jewell, with a country drawl and a deferential manner, became an instant celebrity after a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in the early hours of July 27, 1996, at the midpoint of the Summer Games. The explosion, which propelled hundreds of nails through the darkness, killed one woman, injured 111 people and changed the mood of the Olympiad. Only minutes earlier, Mr. Jewell, who was working as a temporary security guard, had spotted the abandoned green knapsack that contained the bomb, called it to the attention of the police, and started moving visitors away from the area.”
Jewell alerted the GBI nine minutes before Eric Rudolph called 911 to brag about his evil deed. The three pipe bombs in the bag exploded only 3 minutes after the 911 call, giving little response time. But Jewell’s efforts in evacuating the area had begun before the bomber’s call. He saved many lives by his heroic actions on the scene. He was hailed as the hero he was, but three days later, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the FBI was treating Jewell as a suspect. That was based on a profile comparing the quiet, soft-spoken, country-drawl speaking Georgian to the infamous Unabomber. Talk show host Jay Leno called him the “Una-doofus.” At every sporting event at the Brickyard, or between the Hedges, you can see hundreds of people just like him. We call them “good ole boys.”
Jewell was never formally accused, but his home was searched, his friends and co-workers were interrogated, and lawsuits were filed against him by many victims of the blast. The FBI even went so far as to question Jewell on camera under the pretense of making a training film. Jewell was able to eventually ease the pressure on him by taking a lie detector test, which he passed with flying colors. His colors were red, white and blue. He was cleared, and he filed suit against those who had started the negative stories about him, primarily NBC and The Journal-Constitution. He also sued Piedmont College, where he was employed, and its president for giving out false information about him and his employment to the FBI and the media.
Jewell demanded, and received, personal apologies, and the money needed to pay his attorneys. He sued NBC and Tom Brokaw for saying on the air, “The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case. They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still some holes in this case.” NBC agreed to pay Mr. Jewell $500,000. CNN settled for an undisclosed amount.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a pretty sorry state of circumstances, ended up not paying anything. They drug the case out until it was dismissed in December 2007. Why was it dismissed? Richard Jewell had died four months earlier at age 44. I don’t imagine he had planned to waste his last years, while suffering from diabetes, in court. In 2005, Eric Rudolph, a North Carolina man who had become a suspect in the bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., abortion center, pleaded guilty to the attack. He is serving a life sentence.
Jewell is survived by his wife and his mother. His lawyer said that the tragedy was that Richard’s sense of duty and diligence made him a suspect. In 2006, Governor Sonny Perdue publicly thanked Richard Jewell on behalf of the people of the State of Georgia for saving many lives at Olympic Park.