Richard Jewell died yesterday at 44, the victim of diabetes and kidney failure. Richard Jewell's public reputation died eleven years ago, the victim of a mistake by law enforcement and a media blitz that did its best to paint him as a psychopathic bomber with absolutely no evidence -- when all Richard Jewell had done was save lives. In this instance, the New York Times gets it right:
Richard A. Jewell, whose transformation from heroic security guard to Olympic bombing suspect and back again came to symbolize the excesses of law enforcement and the news media, died Wednesday at his home in Woodbury, Ga. He was 44. ...
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 a temporary job as a 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. He was praised for the quick thinking that presumably saved lives.
But three days later, he found himself identified in an article in The Atlanta Journal as the focus of police attention, leading to several searches of his apartment and surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and by reporters who set upon him, he would later say, “like piranha on a bleeding cow.”
What had Jewell done to attract suspicion? Ironically, he had performed too well in his role as a security guard. He noticed the backpack by the bench and quickly determined that it could be a threat. After inadvertently changing the position of the backpack -- which thwarted the bomber, whose shaped charge went up and not out -- he started clearing people from the area as fast as he could before the bomb exploded. The nail-packed charge killed one woman, but if it hadn't been for Jewell, many more would have been killed or injured.
Investigators wondered whether Jewell had planted the bomb deliberately to make himself look heroic and started checking him out in the first few days after the bombing. The FBI tried to con Jewell into a confession without telling him he was a suspect by asking him to make a "training video", a move which got some reprimanded when Jewell turned out to be innocent. Someone in the investigation leaked Jewell's name to the press, which started a feeding frenzy that Jewell himself likened to piranhas on a bleeding cow.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported him as a suspect, and the rest of the national media thundered to the wrong conclusions. News media ran stories that emphasized the fact that the 33-year-old Jewell shared a home with his mother, attempted psychological profiling, and followed him and his family constantly. It only ended when the FBI finally acknowledged three months later that they had screwed up in focusing on Jewell. Jewell sued most of them and won settlements from NBC and CNN, and he died before he could succeed against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It was an infuriating tragedy, and the lack of a clear suspect for months afterward meant that the stigma of the media's insinuations stuck with Jewell for a long time. Only after it became clear that Eric Rudolph committed the bombing -- fifteen months later -- did people realize the extent of the harm done to Jewell, his reputation, and his family.
Richard Jewell should be remembered as a hero, a man who had the instinct and the courage to risk his own life to save others. Unfortunately, many will still remember him in part from all the innuendo and mud thrown at him in the aftermath.