The Georgia Court of Appeals on Wednesday denied an appeal by survivors of Richard Jewell, who sought damages against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and several reporters, saying they had injured his reputation when he was identified as a suspect in the wake of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in 1996.
The court upheld a trial court ruling that the newspaper accurately reported that Jewell was a key suspect in the bombing. The ruling noted that the newspaper made it clear that Jewell, who later was cleared in the bombing, was only a suspect in an ongoing investigation, and even included information that questioned law enforcement’s focus on Jewell.
The court upheld the trial court’s summary judgment ruling in which the remainder of Jewell’s claims were dismissed.
Lin Wood, who represents Jewell’s survivors, said the estate plans to appeal the ruling.
“The reasoning of the decision is nonsensical and at odds with basic libel law,” Wood said.
Peter Canfield, who represents the Journal-Constitution and its reporters, disagreed. “Further appeals won’t change the result. Whenever a court has looked at the merits of this case, it has determined that the newspaper accurately reported on an evolving investigation,” Canfield said.
In giving its ruling, the court expressed sympathy for the plight of Jewell, a former security officer who alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to the presence of a backpack that contained a pipe bomb on July 27, 1996. His recognition of the potential threat allowed hundreds of people to be evacuated before the device detonated, killing one woman and injuring more than 100 others.
Within days of the bombing, federal and state law enforcement began focusing on Jewell as a suspect. Eighty-eight days later, the Justice Department released an unusual statement clearing him.
Eric Robert Rudolph later confessed to the bombing.
Jewell died Aug. 29, 2007.
“Richard Jewell is an unquestionably tragic figure,” the court said. “Here is a man whose valor and quick thinking catapulted him from obscurity to beloved national hero almost instantaneously, who then saw those universal accolades vanish in the blink of an eye. All of the sudden, Jewell was the mistaken villain, forced to endure unfathomable media and law enforcement scrutiny, as well as rampant media speculation that he may have committed the very crime he had so bravely attempted to thwart.”
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