JON OFFREDO / The Working Press
Bobbi Jewell tuned in to NBC’s nightly newscast during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and watched as anchor Tom Brokaw said that her son, Richard, had carried out the bombing at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.
Lin Wood, Jewell’s lawyer, recounted the story Friday to journalists at the SPJ National Convention & Journalism Conference as a cautionary reminder of how the media can rush to judgment and upend the lives of innocent people in the ensuing frenzy.
Wood’s lecture, “Hi, I’ll Be Suing You Today,” touched on the media coverage, lawsuits and the subsequent exoneration of not just Jewell but another client: the family of JonBenét Ramsey.
“The subjects of your reporting are real people,” he told the audience. “And what you say about them, and the tone that you use, and the decisions you have to make about whether to publish confidential information from unnamed sources or leaks … those decisions you make about real people have real and lasting and permanent impacts on the lives of those people.”
Wood is a civil litigation trial lawyer former CBS anchor Dan Rather once dubbed “attorney for the damned.”
He also represented former California congressman Gary Condit, who filed a defamation suit against Vanity Fair magazine writer Dominick Dunne.
Citing a recent interview with The New York Times, Wood suggested to reporters that they check their facts and communicate with sources about their quotes and story.
Jewell, a security guard working during the Olympic Games, was initially hailed as a hero for spotting a bag containing a pipe bomb at the park and helping evacuate the area. The blast killed one person and wounded more than 100.
Soon afterward, authorities identified Jewell as the focus of their investigation and he was identified by several media outlets.
“I loved Richard Jewell,” Wood said. “He was not only a great client, but a great friend.”
Authorities exonerated Jewell after 88 days. Years later, serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph confessed to the attack.
Jewell successfully sued CNN, NBC, Tom Brokaw and others, and settled for undisclosed sums. He died last year but his suit against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is still unresolved.
Even after he was cleared, Wood said, the negative publicity stuck with Jewell.
“Ten years,” Wood said. “There were no headlines written about Richard Jewell in that time. The headlines that were written about Richard Jewell that truly recognized him as a hero, the hero of (the) Olympic Games, were written last August — after he died.”
Like the Jewell case, JonBenét Ramsey’s death in December 1996 fueled rampant tabloid speculation. Many outlets wrongly accused her parents of being involved in her murder.
Even her 9-year-old brother, Burke, was scrutinized, Wood said.
“I would have physically defended attacks against Burke Ramsey,” he said.
Wood used a slide show, detailing the Ramsey case with crime scene photos and newspaper clippings that used erroneous information from unnamed sources.
Eventually, DNA tests on JonBenét’s underwear and pajamas cleared her parents. By then, Patsy Ramsey — JonBenét’s mother — had died.