Defamation as a Remedy for Criminal Suspects Tried Only in the Media

By Williams, Brendan W. | Communications and the Law, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Defamation as a Remedy for Criminal Suspects Tried Only in the Media


Williams, Brendan W., Communications and the Law


Using a recent celebrated case as a model, this article examines defamation as a remedy available to those named in the media as being suspected of crimes for which their innocence is subsequently established without their ever having been formally charge. Richard Jewell, who for almost three months last year was an identified suspect in the July 27, 1996, bombing at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, makes an excellent case study because the fact that he was under suspicion for a crime that he was never charged with was disseminated throughout the United States (and, indeed, the world), along with unflattering characterizations regarding his private life. Because he was never charged, any defamation suit that he could bring against the media presumably would be a stronger case than that which could be brought by a wrongfully accused person who was formally charged with a crime.

The first part of this article examines the facts concerning Richard Jewell's involvement in the bombing story and the media's reporting on it. The second part explains the U.S. Supreme Court's treatment of crime reporting cases. The third part explores the rocky legal terrain that Richard Jewell would have to traverse in any defamation case brought in a Georgia state court. Finally, the fourth part notes the prejudicial effect of extrajudicial statements by law enforcement authorities and suggests remedies.

I. RICHARD JEWELL

Richard Jewell is the Olympic security guard originally credited with saving upwards of hundreds of lives on July 27, 1996, after he spotted an abandoned backpack in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, reported it to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and began moving people away. The backpack, containing three pipe bombs, blew up and killed one person, injuring 111 others.

For a time Jewell was able to enjoy his fifteen minutes of fame. He gave interviews to the print media, and appeared on CNN's Talk Back Live program and on NBC's The Today Show.(1) However, he soon became a suspect. At a July 30th meeting, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents reportedly were able to get Jewell to talk with them by tricking him into believing that he was assisting them in making a "training film" on questioning witnesses.(2) He reportedly ended the session upon being asked to sign a form waiving his Miranda rights,(3) which would be an unlawful request if made within the "play-acting" context described. The FBI then filed affidavits, based upon what appears, in retrospect, to be highly circumstantial evidence, to obtain search warrants for Jewell's property and to obtain a sample of his hair.(4) Although it would have been impossible to make the crude pipe bombs used in the bombing without handling gunpowder, no trace of explosives was ever found on Jewell, or in his truck and home, even with highly sophisticated "bomb-sniffing" devices.(5) Still, the investigation of Jewell continued fruitlessly for months until a U.S. attorney formally brought it to an end in late October 1996.

Law enforcement authorities investigate many suspects or "persons of interest" who are never charged with any crime. Chasing down all leads, no matter how unpromising, is part of the responsibility that comes with investigating crimes. Seldom, however, are the names of uncharged suspects publicized. Richard Jewell would have remained an untarnished hero had that general rule held true. Unfortunately, however, the news that he was a suspect somehow leaked, and his home-town newspaper raced to be the fast to publish it on July 30.(6) After that, the rest of the media followed suit until Jewell was caught up in a "media vortex that made his guilt or innocence almost irrelevant,"(7) As Time later recounted: "The entire weight of federal law enforcement and the global media bore down on one very ordinary man, convinced that he's guilty--and it turns out he's innocent."(8)

In a July 30 article, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that "Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. …

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