THE STRANGE SAGA OF RICHARD JEWELL

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Richard Jewell seems like the most hapless individual you could find for a contest against such powerful antagonists as the FBI and the media. An overweight, single man in his 30s, he hasn't amounted to much in life. He belongs to the one demographic group--working-class, Southern white males--about whom society still seems to allow slurs, like "bubbas." He also seems to be one of those ineffectual men who take things too far when they are given a little power. In the movies, when an an ordinary person faces great, malign forces, that person is played by Gary Cooper or Harrison Ford. Jewell seems to be a pudgy version of Barney Fife. In this mismatch, he wouldn't appear to have a chance.

Last week, however, Jewell stepped forward to claim a tremendous victory. On Oct. 26, in a highly unusual move, a federal prosecutor sent Jewell's lawyer a letter saying that Jewell is no longer a "target" in the federal investigation of the bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta last summer. For three days in July, Jewell had been a hero, since he was the security guard who had noticed the unattended knapsack containing the bomb. Then, just as suddenly, he was identified as the prime suspect and was relentlessly pursued by both the FBI and the press. So it was an emotional Jewell who held a press conference last Monday to celebrate the FBI's retreat. "For 88 days," he said, "I lived a nightmare." In tears, he thanked his mother and remembered his colleagues who were hurt. "I thank God that [the nightmare] is now ended," he said, "and that you know now what I have known all along. I am an innocent man."

The entire weight of federal law enforcement and the global media bear down on one very ordinary man, convinced that he's guilty--and it turns out he's innocent. "Richard Jewell is a poster boy for the Bill of Rights and for why we must do more to protect individual liberty," declares Mark Kappelhoff of the American Civil Liberties Union. Welcome to the real world, counters James Tierney, a former attorney general in Maine and now a legal consultant. "People get chewed up every day. The only difference in this case was that it was on national TV."

But that was enough of a difference to twist the simple plot of the little guy vs. established power. To a large extent, both the FBI and the press were justified in their actions, though nothing perhaps can justify the frenzy with which they went about their work. At the same time, Jewell has not been entirely powerless. While he saw his humdrum life demolished by the press pack, Jewell could also suddenly command a microphone at any time, and he began to put out his own bits of spin. Now he has hooked up with lawyers who plan to sue a growing list of people. The lesson may be, for these modern times, give the ordinary guy a ton of publicity--good or bad--and a couple of attorneys, and he can take on the world.

No one disputes that Jewell and his mother have come through a painful and ugly ordeal. On 60 Minutes last September, Jewell's mother described how investigators carted away the contents of her home. "They took Richard's guns...Then they took all of my Tupperware. I mean, every piece of Tupperware. They took 22 of my Walt Disney tapes." A neighbor, Mia Brown, says Richard sat on the stairs outside the apartment during the search "in just a T shirt and some shorts, looking so depressed and hurt. He just really looked pitiful." He couldn't find a job with the suspicions hanging over him, couldn't even walk the dog without a press escort.

For weeks, Jewell's lawyers had been trying to persuade the government to clear Jewell and apologize to him. The letter that finally arrived from U.S. Attorney Kent B. Alexander, the prosecutor investigating the Atlanta bombing, fell far short of an apology, but it did free Jewell from the fear that he would be arrested at any moment. Jewell, the letter stated, was "not considered a target" of the investigation. "Barring any newly discovered evidence," it continued, "this status will not change."

That language does not foreclose a future investigation of Jewell, and some FBI agents still wonder if he was somehow involved. But absolutely no evidence has been found to link him to the bombing. The search of his mother's house yielded nothing. It would be impossible to make a bomb as crude as the one at Centennial Olympic Park without handling the powder, but no trace of explosives was discovered anywhere on Jewell, in his truck or at his home, even by the vaunted devices used by the FBI that can detect one part per trillion. "They knew within days of going through his apartment that he didn't do it, but they continued to accuse him," says G. Watson Bryant Jr., one of Jewell's attorneys. "Their conduct is just despicable."

If not despicable then perhaps excessive but also understandable. The Centennial Park bomb came only 10 days after the explosion of TWA Flight 800. Nobody knew whether it marked the beginning of a reign of domestic terror. The FBI was under tremendous pressure to solve the case almost instantaneously so that the Olympic Games' athletes and visitors would not be crippled by fear. But it is common knowledge in law enforcement that "the bigger the case, the lower the standard [of conduct]," says Tierney. "The pressure on the police, on prosecutors is overwhelming."

It was perfectly proper for FBI agents to look at Jewell, because the person who reports a crime is almost always investigated. More specifically, they remembered an incident at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles in which the cop who "found" a bomb on a bus for Turkish athletes turned out to have planted it. This "modified Munchausen syndrome," in FBI terminology, occurs in someone who wants to be a hero so badly that he creates emergencies so he can rescue people. Jewell, a police wannabe, fit this profile and also had the characteristics of people who use pipe bombs--white single men in their 30s or 40s with a martial bent.

The first specific tip about Jewell came on July 27, the day of the bombing, in a phone call from Ray Cleere, the president of Piedmont College in Georgia, where Jewell had worked as a security guard until last May. Cleere said he had seen Jewell on television being acclaimed as a hero. Cleere wanted to tell the FBI that Jewell had been "a little erratic," "almost too excitable" and too gung-ho about "energetic police work."

In the next few days, FBI investigators set about gathering more information on Jewell while also pursuing other leads. Among the early allegations cited in government documents are the following: Jewell wondered aloud whether the tower he was guarding could withstand a bomb blast; a neighbor at Jewell's country cabin said he had heard a loud explosion, seen a large cloud of smoke rising from the woods and then seen Jewell at the edge of the woods, looking "very nervous"; Jewell had told co-workers, "You better take a picture of me now because I'm going to be famous"; Jewell, as a deputy sheriff in Habersham County, owned an olive-drab military-style knapsack very much like the one that contained the bomb, yet he denied this to the FBI; also, as a Habersham County deputy, Jewell had received some training about bombs, particularly pipe bombs; Jewell, who never took breaks, had left his post between 10:00 and 10:15 on the night of the bombing.

Was this information "too thin" to support a search warrant, as Jewell's lawyers claim? Not according to some experts, who note that investigators must only show "probable cause" that evidence is present to get a warrant. Yet Jewell's lawyers energetically maintain that none of these items were true. The backpack? Jewell never owned one. "He had a green knapsack he took to work every day, and they took that," says lawyer L. Lin Wood. The explosion? "Richard doesn't have a clue what they are talking about, except that he burns trash, and it could have been an aerosol can," says Wood. He points out that a government memorandum states that investigators could find no metal fragments near where the explosion supposedly took place. The boast "I'm going to be famous"? The government memorandum says the colleagues who allegedly heard this comment are still being sought, and Wood is convinced that whoever mentioned it heard about it secondhand. Taking a break? Jewell was going to the bathroom.

According to Samuel Gross, a professor of criminal procedure at Michigan Law School, "there's a point at which an open investigation of who committed a crime becomes instead the prosecution of suspect X. If that happens early on in the case, the chances of making a mistake are very great." In the Atlanta bombing, the shift from an open investigation to the prosecution of a particular suspect does seem to have taken place very early, and the result was certainly a mistake.

On July 29, only two days after the bombing, the FBI had already set about secretly taping a conversation between Jewell and a friend. Tim Attaway, an officer with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, had got to know Jewell in the course of their work at Centennial Park. Attaway had not been there on the day of the attack, so he asked Jewell to tell him all about what happened. He went over to Jewell's mother's house for a lasagna dinner, and for nearly two hours, with barely a break, Jewell recounted the whole affair. He did not know that Attaway, at the request of the FBI, was wearing a wire. Whether it was legal or not, Jewell's lawyers maintain that it was underhanded.

More deception was in the offing. Jewell claims, and FBI sources confirm, that before his name had been leaked to the press as a suspect, agents persuaded Jewell to submit to a voluntary filmed interview by telling him they were making a training video. Officials at the Justice Department say neither they nor FBI Director Louis Freeh knew about the ruse until September. Immediately, say these sources, Justice and Freeh launched an investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility. So far, the officials in Washington seem to agree with the opinion of Jewell attorney Jack Martin that the use of this tactic, often called a pretext interview, was "legal but sleazy."

A much more serious charge is that the agents conducting the pretext interview tried to trick Jewell into waiving his Miranda rights (the right to remain silent, to have an attorney present during questioning and so on). Jewell's lawyers say that as part of the playacting for the training video, an agent asked Jewell to sign such a waiver. Martin has released what he claims is a transcript of the interrogation that quotes an agent as saying to Jewell, "See, what I'm going to do is, I'm going to go right through it like, uh, I'm going to walk up and introduce myself to you, basically, tell you who I am, show you my credentials, just like you are doing a ... a professional interview. O.K.? And then, uh, I'll just ask you a couple of questions as far as to advise you of your rights. O.K.? Do you understand that?"

If an agent did try to fool Jewell in this way, it would unquestionably have been unlawful and improper. But there are reasons to doubt that the incident really took place. "Why in the world would you try to trick someone if you were taping it?" asks an official. "You'd have to be insane to do it with the tape running."

Confusion may have arisen because Freeh was switching signals with the field while Jewell was sitting in the FBI interview room. According to several sources, the FBI agents and prosecutors in Atlanta initially decided that they did not need to read Jewell his Miranda warning. Case law has held that a person who is speaking to the federal investigators voluntarily and who is not being detained need not be read his rights. Partway through the interview, however, Freeh called Atlanta and said agents had to give Jewell a Miranda warning. While there are conflicts about what was said when the agents did so, this much is clear: the agents did broach the subject of Miranda to Jewell--at which point Jewell decided he needed a lawyer, clammed up and left. Inside the FBI, there is criticism of Freeh's intervention. Agents speculate that if the Miranda warning had not been introduced so abruptly, Jewell might have chatted on and said enough to resolve the question of his guilt or innocence.

Instead, Jewell became the subject of an investigation that dragged on for three months, even though not one piece of physical evidence was produced. And his interrogators at the FBI will themselves face an intense internal probe, which could last a year or longer. The problems in the Jewell case only add to the bureau's recent difficulties. Last week E. Michael Kahoe, a senior FBI official, pleaded guilty to having shredded an embarrassing internal report about the mishandling of the siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where the wife and son of white supremacist Randy Weaver were killed.

There is also a second internal investigation of the Jewell case going on at the FBI, and it concerns a practice that no one there defends: leaking information to the press. This investigation was launched by Freeh on Aug. 1 and aims to uncover the person or persons who tipped reporters that the FBI suspected Jewell. Freeh decreed early in his tenure that leaking is forbidden and could result in dismissal. Some have charged that the FBI was trying to use the press to squeeze Jewell, but agency officials argue persuasively that the leaks actually hurt their cause. If Jewell had not learned through the media that he was under investigation, they say, he might have been profitably strung along.

But if the FBI detests leaks, journalists live by them, and press conduct is the other great issue of the Jewell affair. Is it right to print in every newspaper and broadcast on every television station in the world the name of a man who anonymous sources have said is the subject of an investigation but who has not been arrested or charged? Is it right to explore every aspect of his life, to sit outside his home with TV cameras for weeks on end? Is it right to sacrifice an individual's privacy to the abstract principle of the public's right to know?

"This should be a day, week and month of introspection among all parts of the media," says Tom Goldstein, a professor at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "The presumption of innocence seems to have eroded, and that's the responsibility of both law enforcement and the media." It hardly matters, in Goldstein's view, that most outlets mentioned again and again that Jewell was only a suspect. "Once you put out a name, the caveats tend to get lost in the shuffle," he says.

But John Seigenthaler, chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Tennessee's Vanderbilt University and a former newspaper editor, says, "Given the loss of human life and the threat to human life, if the FBI gave [the name] to me, I would have gone with it. But I'd be weeping now." Not so Carl Stern, a former spokesman for the Department of Justice and correspondent for NBC who now teaches journalism at George Washington University. "All this journalistic hand-wringing is unnecessary," he says. "The System worked. There is no one in the U.S. who does not have a good picture of who Richard Jewell is, what happened to him and that he is now not a suspect in the Olympic bombing. Jewell himself had virtually unlimited access to the media."

What truly angers Jewell's lawyers is not that the press reported that he was a suspect, which after all was true, but that it did so in ways that seemed to convict him on the spot. That's why the attorneys are first targeting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which broke the story, and NBC in their lawsuits. Attorneys Wood and Martin criticize the Journal-Constitution for asserting, in its special edition on the bombing, that Jewell sought publicity. "By saying he tried to be a hero," says attorney Bryant, "they gave him the motive, but it's not true." Bryant Steele, an AT&T spokesman who set up Jewell's interviews after the bombing, confirms that Jewell was not particularly eager for press attention. "From the time I spent with him," he says, "I saw no evidence of it."

Jewell's lawyers also object to certain sections of the columns written by Dave Kindred for the paper. On Aug. 1, for example, Kindred compared Jewell to Wayne Williams, the Atlanta serial child killer. "Once upon a terrible time, federal agents came to this town to deal with another suspect who lived with his mother. Like this one, that suspect was drawn to the blue lights and sirens of police work. Like this one, he became famous in the aftermath of murder.

"His name was Wayne Williams.

"This one is Richard Jewell."

The Journal-Constitution would not comment on specifics but released a statement saying, "The public had--and has--a strong interest in the progress of the bombing investigation. They had a right to know when authorities' doubts about such a prominent figure in the bombing story led them to suspect him. Our reporting accurately pinpointed when those doubts turned Richard Jewell into the focus of the investigation."

As for NBC, Jewell and his lawyers object to comments made by Tom Brokaw on the day Jewell's name surfaced: "The speculation is that the FBI is close to 'making the case,' in their language. They probably have enough on him to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well." But Brokaw then went on to note several times that Jewell was not yet even an official suspect.

Jewell may have a hard time winning a libel suit, because he would have to prove that something written or broadcast was false. If a court decides that Jewell is a public figure, he will also have to prove that the falsehood was intentional or made in reckless disregard of the truth. This issue of whether Jewell is a public figure is "a tough borderline case," says Vincent Blasi, a First Amendment expert at the Columbia University School of Law.

Blasi agrees with the Jewell camp that the most disturbing type of coverage was "all the pop psychologizing about him." But he notes that, absent serious inaccuracies, Jewell has "a grievance but not a case." Even were Jewell to file a claim for invasion of privacy, Blasi says, it could be countered by the public's legitimate interest in whether FBI investigators had found the right person.

In fact, Jewell's lawyers say they plan to file libel actions, in which they may have little chance of prevailing. Attorney Wayne Grant insists, however, that "we will win these lawsuits. This is not a p.r. campaign." Yet it will certainly feel like one. Libel cases are a "nightmare" for the defendants, notes Blasi. "You lose them even if you win them." Already the reputations of the FBI and the press are suffering, and Jewell has been able to turn the media megaphone around to declare his innocence. You almost wish he'd quit now. Sign a lucrative book or movie deal and call it even. But it's only in films that adversity makes the ordinary man noble and merciful. In real life, he sues.