Olympic Guard’s Libel Suit Against Atlanta Journal to Proceed

October 10, 2006

An Atlanta judge ruled last week that former Olympic security guard Richard Jewell’s libel suit against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution can proceed, but threw out most of Jewell’s other claims that the newspaper defamed him.

State Court Judge John R. Mather said a jury would decide whether the newspaper was wrong to report that investigators believed Jewell placed a 911 call warning that a bomb would go off at Centennial Olympic Park.

The July 27, 1996, bombing killed one person and wounded more than 100. Jewell was praised as a hero for finding the backpack that contained the bomb and helping clear park visitors from the scene. But he fell under suspicion when it was reported that the FBI was investigating him for possible involvement.

Jewell was later cleared, and some news organizations settled legal claims that he had been defamed. The Journal-Constitution defended its reporting.

Eric Rudolph, an anti-government extremist, pleaded guilty in April 2005 to setting the Olympic park bomb and three others, including a fatal explosion at a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic.

This year, Gov. Sonny Perdue marked the 10th anniversary of the bombing by commending Jewell, who is now a deputy sheriff in Meriwether County.

Mather ruled that the Journal-Constitution reported truthfully that Jewell was the focus of investigation, that investigators believed he fit the profile of a lone bomber and most other points surrounding the probe.

However, the judge acknowledged that although Jewell may have been suspected initially of making the 911 call, it became clear that the call was made three minutes after Jewell found the suspicious backpack from a telephone booth several blocks away — possibly a five to eight minute walk.

Jewell’s lawyer, Lin Wood, said the newspaper’s reports on the telephone call were “absolutely” false.

“It is a significant victory for Richard Jewell to get his case before a jury,” Wood said.

Tom Clyde, the newspaper’s lawyer, said that when the stories were published, “the timing sequence of when the bomb went off and when the phone call was made remained very much in question.”

Clyde said the Journal-Constitution later “led the way” in reporting evidence that exonerated Jewell.

The newspaper’s publisher, John Mellott, said it will seek permission to appeal the ruling on the 911-call claim “and looks forward to the opportunity to show the accuracy of our reporting on that issue to the Court of Appeals.”

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