Judge first, ask questions later
“He’s so tainted that even when he was exonerated, no one still wanted to really be identified with him,”
— Lin Wood,
Richard Jewell’s Attorney
“In their mad rush to fulfill their own personal agendas, the FBI and the media almost destroyed me and my mother.”
— Richard Jewell
The 1996 Summer Olympics were about half over on July 27. Spectators, athletes and reporters were enjoying a night out and reviewing the days’ events, congregating on the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park and listening to a free concert there. Sometime after midnight, a security guard noticed a suspicious bag and began to move people away from the area. The bomb squad was alerted. At 1:20 a.m., the largest pipe bomb in U.S. history exploded, showering the area with shrapnel. One woman was killed by the blast and a cameraman rushing to cover the explosion died of a heart attack. One hundred and eleven people were injured.
Within 24 hours, media attention had focused on the security guard who had moved people away. Initially raised up as a hero, word soon spread that the FBI had searched his home as part of their investigation and, in the eyes of television reporters, he became the number one suspect. Jay Leno called him the “Una-Doofus,” Time magazine dubbed him the “Una-Bubba” and two of the victims of the bombing, based solely on media reports, actually filed lawsuits against him. The problem was that all of those people were acting solely on tiny bits of information they had and Jewell actually had acted heroically.
In October of that year, U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander actually sent a letter to Jewell formally proclaiming that he was not a suspect. Years later, after three more bombings, attention focused on Eric Rudolph who was captured in 2003 and was convicted of the Centennial Park bombing. Jewell filed libel lawsuits against NBC, the New York Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CNN. He settled with NBC for $500,000 and with CNN and the Post for undisclosed amounts. His case against the Atlanta newspaper was still pending when he died, at the age of 45, in 2007 from complications of heart disease and diabetes.
Jewell’s case is not unique. The radio, television and Internet eras are rife with examples of cases that were tried in the court of public opinion long before they reached an actual courtroom; Fatty Arbuckle, Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, the Duke lacrosse team and many more. Many were ultimately acquitted, some were ultimately guilty but in all cases investigations were significantly impaired, trials made less fair and lives irrevocably altered by a public scrutiny based on partial fact and overwhelming conjecture– adjudged not by the totality of the facts after a thorough investigation but by whatever bits and pieces of information may be known publicly.
During the Casey Anthony trial, I was frequently asked by people whether I thought she was guilty or not. I always answered the same way — that I had no idea whether she was guilty, because I was not privy to all of the evidence the investigators, attorneys, judge and jury in her case had seen, and without having seen all of the evidence there was simply no way I could make any judgment. Anthony’s case was suffering from the “Nancy Grace” effect. So many talking heads had made loud pronouncements about her “obvious guilt” that the reality of the evidence in her case was immaterial.
Anthony and Simpson may well have committed the crimes for which they were charged and ultimately acquitted, but our legal system does not work on conjecture and supposition and the juries that heard their cases concluded that there was not enough evidence to convict them.
Ultimately, that’s the jury’s job — to come to that conclusion once it has all the facts before it. It is a good exercise of civic responsibility to hold public institutions accountable to performing their responsibilities honestly and completely. It is a great public disservice to usurp those duties into the public arena and charge, try and convict someone in true vigilante fashion. The lives of Richard Jewell and the Duke lacrosse players ought to be proof enough of that.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.