Ga. court upholds ruling in Jewell suit

The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday unanimously upheld a previous court ruling dismissing a lawsuit filed by survivors of Richard Jewell against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Jewell’s estate had sought damages against the newspaper and several reporters, saying they injured his reputation when they identified him as a suspect following the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing.

The decision effectively brings to a close litigation that has dragged on for 15 years, unless Jewell’s attorneys seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court, said the newspaper’s attorney, Peter Canfield. Even then, it’s unlikely that the nation’s highest court would take up the case since there is no federal legal basis for challenging the state Court of Appeals’ decision, Canfield said.

In July, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld a trial court ruling that stated the newspaper accurately reported that Jewell was a key suspect in the bombing.

That ruling said the newspaper made it clear Jewell, who later was cleared, was only a suspect in an ongoing investigation. The newspaper even included information that questioned law enforcement’s focus on him, the ruling noted.

Lin Wood, who represents Jewell’s survivors, said Monday that he has not decided whether to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite the latest decision, Wood said in an emailed response Monday that he believed the newspaper’s reporting implicated Jewell as more than a suspect.

“The decision by the Georgia Supreme Court is good news for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution but bad news for the citizens of this state who value the right to protect their reputations from false accusations,” Wood said.

Wood said the Court of Appeals’ decision was clearly erroneous, and it should have been reviewed and reversed by the Georgia Supreme Court.

Canfield disagreed.

“As every court that has reviewed the record has recognized, the Journal-Constitution was the first news organization to accurately report the Olympic bombing investigation’s intense initial focus on Jewell and the reasons for that focus,” Canfield said. The paper was also the first news organization to accurately report the facts that eventually exonerated him. That’s not libel. It’s the kind of quality reporting that every community deserves.”

Jewell, a former security officer, alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to the presence of a backpack that contained a pipe bomb on July 27, 1996. A subsequent blast killed one woman and injured more than 100 others.

Jewell was initially hailed as a hero because his precautions helped thousands of park visitors evacuate safely before the bomb exploded.

Within days of the bombing, though, federal and state law enforcement zeroed in on Jewell as a suspect. Then 88 days later, the Justice Department released an unusual statement clearing him.

The militant extremist Eric Robert Rudolph later confessed to placing the bomb.

Jewell died Aug. 29, 2007.