Richard Jewell Cannot Accept Our Apology

After a crime like yesterday's Boston bombings, it can be worthwhile to reflect on how we've reacted to similar tragedies.  Consider the case of Richard Jewell.

A terrorist detonated a bomb at Atlanta's Olympic Park, during the 1996 Olympic games. That terrorist was Eric Robert Rudolph, who pled guilty to the crime along with a number of abortion clinic bombings. Mr. Rudolph is presently a guest at the ADMAX hotel in Florence Colorado.

For nine years, Richard Jewell labored under suspicion that he'd been the bomber. In fact, Richard Jewell was a jewel of a man, a private security guard who spotted the bomb, informed the police of its existence, and escorted park visitors off the site until the bomb exploded. Jewell was a hero.

Such an unlikely hero, it occurred to the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, that he must have planted the bomb. After all, private security guards are losers. Mall cops. And Jewell, for all his common sense and bravery in a crisis, was an odd man. A little weird, a law-enforcement wannabe who'd just happened to be in the right place at the right time, then went on tv talking as though he was an actual cop. And he was fat.

Obviously that weirdo Jewell had planted the bomb so he could take credit for discovering it.

Or so it seemed, for some reason, to the FBI, which leaked Jewell as the primary suspect, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which took the leak, a perfect story after all, and used it to make Jewell's life Hell on Earth.

And to All Of Us, who behaved like beasts toward Jewell, because after all CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that the FBI had fingered him as the bomber.

Jewell died 11 years after the bombing, exonerated and a little richer thanks to several settlements against media outlets like CNN, but still a broken man. In its obituary, the New York Times, which had also reported on the allegations against Jewell, eulogized him as the hero of the Atlanta attack.

Which did Richard Jewell no good whatsoever.

Eric Robert Rudolph has never apologized to Jewell. Nor, for that matter, have the people of Georgia who spat on him. All Of Us.

If the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and All Of Us, could get the Atlanta bombing so tragically wrong in 1996, they, and we, can do it today. In the days to come, it would behoove All Of Us to take what the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and their ilk, have to say about suspects and motives with a grain of salt.

Lest we find outselves owing someone a Richard Jewell-sized apology.

Perhaps the best apology we, All Of Us, can give to Richard Jewell is to be a little more skeptical of what we're told by the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and their ilk.

It will do Richard Jewell no good whatsoever, but it will make All Of Us better citizens.

Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White


  1. Kat says

    I really hope that America will take a deep collective breath and a step back before freaking out. It's not a very strong hope, and I'm kind of avoiding news sources in the hopes of extending the fantasy a while longer, so to speak. But a gal can hope.

  2. says

    Well-said. I am reserving any and all judgment on what happened in Boston until more information (i.e., more than none) is available. Too often we're just looking for someone, ANYONE, to blame in a time of crisis. It's hard, but we much steel ourselves for what is, quite likely, going to be a very, very long wait to find out who did this horrible thing.

    But I grew up in New England. We're patient. We'll wait.

    As long as it fucking takes.

  3. says

    Assumption of innocence is a good thing even outside the legal sphere, yes. One of my pet dislikes is the tendency of people to use suspect and criminal interchangeably.

  4. says

    "All Of Us, who behaved like beasts toward Jewell…"

    Sorry, Patrick. I understand what you mean, but "All Of Us" wasn't all of us. Some folks all along said to hold off judgement. We questioned the FBI leaking that allegation. We doubted the wanna-be hero scenario. And we did it as publicly as we could, which wasn't very public since few media outlets were interested in hearing that just maybe they had the wrong guy.

    "Some Of Us" had already figured out the FBI's media-driven "investigation" tactics. We'd seen the way "perps" got moved to the "Most Wanted" list once the FBI thought they were closing in (and could thus look good by catching a "most wanted"). Some Of Us had even personally seen the FBI at work.

  5. says

    Jewell fulfilled a need. He helped people believe that threats come from bumbling domestic figures rather than scary foreign ones. He helped us believe that terrorist acts are the result of comprehensible, if vile, motives like the need for attention rather than scary, incomprehensible motives related to people killing each other in places we don't follow. He fulfilled a general media desire to make fun of people along certain socioeconomic and cultural lines — hence Jay Leno's "unibubba."

    Right now, we're seeing the same thing — people speculating, and then angrily defending their speculations, to fulfill their emotional and political needs to identify certain groups as likely suspects.

  6. says

    Bear, Patrick does not literally mean "all of us got Richard Jewel wrong". It's rhetorical flourish. But we all need to get the message, regardless of what we did or didn't do in 1996.

  7. says

    The really sad and pathetic part is NOT A SINGLE LESSON WAS LEARNED. They already said something about someone of Arabic descent was being held.

  8. JRM says

    The "nine years" is wrong. The bombing was in July, 1996, and the USA in charge of the case sent him a letter clearing him in October, 1996. Janet Reno admitted the leak was error later. He was on SNL in 1997 as himself, where they made fun of the errant allegations.

    He also got the police jobs he wanted before his death. (Sources: Primarily Wikipedia.)

    The underlying point – that the media sometimes gets things seriously wrong, and law enforcement leaks can be very bad ideas – still stands. But this wasn't nine years of torture for the dude; that overstates it.

  9. says

    That's an interesting notion you have there JRM. Do you think Jewell got over it when he received his clearance from the United States Attorney?

    I wouldn't have.

  10. Mike B says

    …. and not a single lesson was learned that day.

    Sadly, I'm thoroughly inclined to add that statement to everything I hear about the Olympic Park bombings and their ensuing aftermath. I'm sure we'll see the same mistakes made here that were made after that bombing, that were made after 9/11, and that are made every time we face a public tragedy. I'm sure the "random back checks" conducted on the MBTA today to violate everyone's privacy and make no one safer will be about as "random" as the suspicion that riders' skin color, clothing, and overall "look" evokes in the officers doing the searches.

    In the rush to make headlines, numerous news outlets have already tried to claim that the police had a suspect of one various ethnicity or another. Fortunately the police seem smart enough to outright refute these rumors as soon as they come up, but at the end of the day I have little faith that common sense will win out here.

  11. naught_for_naught says

    Same too with Richard Ricci, the poor slob who had the great misfortune of being the handyman to the Ed Smart family while simultaneously having a criminal history. When Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped, he quickly became the primary suspect and subsequently died of a stroke, presumably brought on, in some part, by the crush of media scrutiny befell him. When the Elizabeth was finally found, the police the press and the family deftly stepped over Ricci's body to craft their sentimental narrative of hardship and heroism, published in print and produced for television.

    Don't get me wrong. Elizabeth Smart was an innocent victim, and Richard Ricci had lived a shady life. I am just sort of nauseated by the mawkish narrative that's produced afterwards. It makes us all tacitly culpable. I don't care for that.

  12. Mike B says


    I'm sorry to say, you're fooling yourself if you think Jewell didn't die a broken man. All accounts of his life after being cleared support that. You see the same thing every time someone is falsely accused of other heinous crimes like child abuse and rape. No matter how thoroughly they are cleared, they live with that hanging over them for the rest of their lives.

  13. MattS says


    The part about an Arabic man being held is true. From what I read, the man was spotted by a local citizen running away from the scene. The local tackled the Arabic man and turned him over to the police.

    The Arabic man has denied any involvement and it should be clearly noted that running away from the scene of a bombing is not of and in itself suspicious.

  14. says

    While his actions were understandable, the media still linked him to it. Proving that they are like a child unable to check their tongue.

  15. nlp says

    In Boston, the term "behaving suspiciously" often translates to "Not Irish." And this is a city where members of the FBI deliberately allowed men to be sent to prison for a murder they didn't commit, and warned Whitey Bulger to flee before the state cops picked him up. (And where Whitey insists the FBI told him he had immunity for multiple murders, and therefore can't be tried).

    If we can take the lessons from previous experience and apply them to yesterday's bombing, it might make it easier to find the real murderer and get him behind bars.

  16. Dictatortot says

    That information is potentially relevant, Barnassey—though not necessarily so. Since the man was a bystander at a bombing, Occam's Razor suggests that's related to the issue that the police wanted to discuss with him. It could well be nothing, though. For my part, I'm not inclined to speculate further about the man until he and the gendarmes have had their say, and until someone establishes solid causes for suspicion. Ken has just finished saying that we owe him nothing less than that … but we don't necessarily owe him more.

  17. sorrykb says

    Matt S wrote:

    it should be clearly noted that running away from the scene of a bombing is not of and in itself suspicious.

    I think running away from a bombing is entirely unsuspicious. In fact, it's the most understandable reaction.

  18. En Passant says

    Grandy wrote Apr 16, 2013 @7:41 am:

    Bear, Patrick does not literally mean "all of us got Richard Jewel wrong". It's rhetorical flourish. But we all need to get the message, regardless of what we did or didn't do in 1996.

    Understood and agreed, but I must also admit my first reaction was also "where do you get that 'we', Kemo Sabe?"

    I think most Popehat readers and peanut gallery here tend to be at least skeptical of governments and mainstream media. So such reactions are not too surprising.

    My concern (and I see others' above as well) is how legislators will act after some perpetrator has been found and convicted. No matter what person or organization perpetrated this crime, I expect governments to enact laws to further restrict the liberty of law abiding citizens and to further enhance the power of the state against citizens, yet do nothing to prevent such future atrocities.

    Always use any crisis to slouch toward totalitarian government seems to be the first choice of most officials.

  19. different Jess says

    Thanks for having the single reaction to this event I've seen that not only isn't itself dumb but also doesn't make dumber everyone who encounters it. The cable channels could learn a great deal from Popehat.

  20. LordAstral says

    I think running away from a bombing is entirely unsuspicious. In fact, it's the most understandable reaction.

    And of all places, the Boston Marathon would be the one place where you would expect to see running.

  21. MattS says


    The media noted that he was being held by police for questioning in connection with the bombing which is completely true. He is most likely innocent, but he was turned over to police at the scene and in a case like this they can't not investigate him.

  22. MattS says


    Until a more specific lead is found, the police will need to investigate everyone who was is the vicinity of the bombing.

  23. different Jess says

    Being an Arab on a student visa who innocently just happens to be at the scene of a terrorist incident in the USA would be really rotten luck.

  24. naught_for_naught says


    I think you're misusing Occam's Razor here. Occam's razor is really about evaluating competing hypotheses. This is more about drawing a reasonable inference from a set of events where there are a number of unknowns.

    Here's what we know: guy was seen near bombing site; guy may have ran from bombing site; guy may be Arabic; police, who are investigating bombing, are questioning guy. Here's what we don't know: everything else.

    He may be a suspect. He may just be a potential witness. For those who argue that he's a natural suspect because he was running away from a bombing while being Arabic, I would argue that running away from a bomb blast is the rational thing to do, if you are Arabic or not.

    The most likely explanation, given the unknowns, is that the media is jumping to conclusions, given their near perfect track record for doing so.

  25. sorrykb says

    @MattS: I get that. I just couldn't help but notice that only one of the many people quite reasonably running away from bombs was tackled by onlookers and then described by news media.
    All this may well be as much a result of the 24-hour news cycle as anything (except good old-fashioned fear of the "other") — people falling over themselves trying to be first with the latest information. Even if it's not accurate. It's natural and human to speculate, to search for answers and explanations especially when we're frightened. But we should demand more of people in a position of public trust, whether it be government officials/law enforcement, or news media. (And now I'm going to get called out for using "trust", "government", and "news media" in the same sentence, but I'll stand by my perhaps hopelessly naive belief that we can do better.)

  26. Dan Weber says

    I'll say I got Richard Jewell wrong. When I heard he was a suspect, I turned to someone and said "yeah, I knew it, that was too perfect."

    I hope I have learned from my error. I pray that my tiny marginal amount of opprobrium did not harm Jewell.

  27. Dictatortot says

    A fair point. I was simply inferring that the police had questions for the fellow that were related to the bombing: no idea what those questions might be about, though, or what they might imply. Saying as much–or even reporting as much–doesn't seem irresponsible in itself.

  28. dogatemyhomework says

    According to the New America Foundation (via CNN), of the 77 people indicted for conspiring to carry out attacks on the US who were able to obtain explosives or bomb components, 48 were right wing extremists and 23 were al Qaeda inspired militants. So if anybody tries to say, without any proof, that this act was the work of Arabs, please remind them that it's twice as likely to have been committed by Republicans.

  29. sorrykb says

    C'mon, now. As a leftist myself (socialized medicine! socialized medicine!), I have to say there's no need to make poor arguments. Even if the 48 right-wing extremists were in fact Republicans (and we don't know that, and I'm inclined to doubt that most identified as such), twice zero evidence (what we have in this case so far) is still zero.

  30. Brett Middleton says

    It seems clear to me that we need to be looking for a North Korean Muslim who has joined the Tea Party.

  31. David M. Nieporent says

    Let's not forget Wen Ho Lee. Worse than Richard Jewell, who was "merely" slandered by the government and the compliant media, Wen Ho Lee was (after being slandered by the government and the compliant media, especially the New York Times), arrested, thrown into solitary for 9 months, had every federal law enforcement agent drawing a salary crawl through his life, and was then forced to plead guilty to a nothing charge to allow the government to save face.

  32. marco73 says

    Not sure if all Popehat readers are aware of just HOW deceptive the FBI was in trying to crucify Richard Jewell.
    During the time Mr. Jewell was cooperating and trying to provide as much information about the bombing as possible, the FBI decided that they had their man. But they had no real evidence. Hey, a signed confession would be great!
    So the FBI set up a conference room with video cameras, and told Mr. Jewell that the FBI would like to make a training video, and could Mr. Jewell please sign the "confession" the FBI conveniently typed up for him, on camera of course.
    Mr. Jewell rightly told the great and illustrious G-Men that maybe it would be better to spend their time trying to, you know, catch some criminals or something, and stop wasting his time with nonsense like training videos. This was after Mr. Jewell had spent days going over and over what he saw, evidence that would eventually assist in tracking down and convicting Mr. Rudolph.
    I still distinctly recall how the FBI led news crews through Mr. Jewell's mother's bedroom, including opening up her underwear drawer for them multiple times so everyone could get a good shot.
    Thank you Partick for telling everyone to just calm the heck down.

  33. perlhaqr says

    dogatemyhomework: What time period is that figure for?

    Because I think the existence of Brett Kimberlin and Bill Ayers shows that domestic terrorism in the US belongs exclusively to neither side of the political spectrum.

  34. MattS says


    What about ALF, ELF, BLA or Weather Underground?

    Sure, if you dump all right-wing domestic terrorism in to one bucket, it gets a slight majority. However, Eco-terrorism accounts for about 30% of domestic terrorism, so if you break out right-wing terrorism into specific causes (anti-tax, anti-abortion (I will use this term rather than pro-life for violent groups), etc) then Eco-terrorism which is a largely left-wing cause will likely win as the single largest cause behind US domestic terrorism.

  35. AlphaCentauri says

    I find it interesting that there's a lot of speculation it's a domestic terrorist because the bombs were low-tech. Even our bomb making industry can't compete with imports, it seems.

  36. Lucy says

    Thank you Patrick.

    When I spoke to my children, I explained about the first article I read, pointing out how the police were questioning a suspect; "a Saudi national" who was injured.

    Already upset by the tragedy, reading that was insult to injury. New York Post reported it, and was picked up by other news outlets.

    They had no information on why that person was a suspect, other than the look of their skin.

    Speaking to my children had more to do with how to respond to these kinds of tragedies, people taking strangers into their homes who couldn't leave the city, the people finders online, community coming together… and most importantly, ALWAYS question the source of the information we hear, believe, and repeat.

    We have to accept that there are extremists in every culture, and that is sick. The cultures themselves are not the cause of extremists. Sick people are everywhere.

  37. Stan says

    Jewell's situation was one of the first things I thought about after I heard about the FBI investigation into the bombing (though I couldn't recall his name). Also, I would expect that the person or persons involved would not conspicuously run away. They would either be long gone or be hanging around to see the results of their handiwork.

    This will be solved by real police work once all of the chaff gets weeded out. For instance, I would imagine that every Bed Bath and Beyond in the area will be getting a visit from the FBI to see who bought two large pressure cookers recently.

    In the meantime, ideologues of all stripes will use this as a platform for their pet views…all of which can be ignored.

  38. sorrykb says

    @MattS: In the count of "eco-terrorism" incidents, are you including only crimes that target people, or also those that only target property? Getting slightly off-topic, but the increasing practice of attaching the word "terrorism" to something to make it sounds worse — or justify new laws or practices that violate human rights — is something of a concern. (ZOMG CYBERTERRORISM!!!)

  39. dogatemyhomework says

    Matts, the time frame was since 9/11, and the statistics included 5 anarchists and 1 eco-terrorist. But like all statistics, they're suspect. Since they only represent indicted individuals who obtains bomb materials, it could be that right wing extremists are more competent and therefore get farther along in their plans before getting caught.

    Regardless, my argument is absurd. The extremists of any group live outside what is acceptable to the group…that's what makes them extreme.

  40. JRM says


    My fundamental specific claim is that saying that it was nine years between accusation and vindication is wrong. The additional information provided shows it's wrong; he was publicly eliminated as a suspect months – not years – later, to the point where he ended up on SNL.

    How Jewell's life would have gone differently is unclear; I am not saying he got over it. I am not defending the leak of speculation. I am not defending the AJC's actions. I am saying that a specific factual claim is wrong.

  41. MattS says


    "are you including only crimes that target people, or also those that only target property?"

    I don't think this distinction can be clearly made nor is it relevant. The 30% figure comes from here.

    Go there to see what they did or did not include.

    "Getting slightly off-topic, but the increasing practice of attaching the word "terrorism" to something to make it sounds worse — or justify new laws or practices that violate human rights — is something of a concern. "

    True, but I am not trying to "justify new laws or practices" so not relevant.

  42. sorrykb says

    @MattS: It's relevant because the following counts as an act of "Domestic Terrorism". From the FBI report Terrorism 2002-2005:

    Vandalism and Destruction of Property
    Henrico County, Virginia
    Goochland County, Virginia
    (One act of Domestic Terrorism)
    During the period of August–November 2002, Aaron L. Linas, John B. Wade, and Adam V. Blackwell carried out several acts of vandalism and destruction of private property, in apparent acts of environmental terrorism. Many of these acts were attributed to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).
    On several days in August 2002, the individuals damaged 12 construction vehicles at a construction site in Goochland, Virginia, by pouring sugar into the gas tanks. The individuals also vandalized two homes under construction in the area, writing the word “sprawl” on one of the homes.

  43. Mark says

    Patrick; You're posting a lot less these days than you used to. And up until today that made me sad.

    Today I realized that we've traded quantity with quality. So if you've got better things to do, you can proudly take the rest of the month off from posting… because this was out-of-the-park good.

    Thanks. And if the next one is going to be this good, you just let it percolate until its ready. I'll wait! :-)

  44. MattS says


    Again, you have to look at the source I cited to see what they did or didn't count.

    As to the specific incident you cite, ELF is also behind a lot of acts that can not reasonably be believed would not result in human injuries such as spiking trees in logging areas.

  45. Rusty says

    And we saw enough media claims about a "suspect" who was "in custody" enough times that I saw 5 references by law spokesmen saying pointedly….we do not have a suspect and we do not have anyone in custody. Yet we have some media outlets who continued to clamor about the Saudi national "under arrest" (looking at you, fox news)

  46. different Jess says

    Sincerely: well done, dogatemyhomework. Nothing erases an absurd argument as well as such a retraction for absurdity.

  47. AlphaCentauri says

    I heard about a Saudi citizen who was receiving treatment in a hospital and who was being questioned; the reporter was careful to say he was not in custody and that the police were questioning anyone in the hospital capable of talking to them.

    On the other hand I heard a request for information from anyone who saw a "dark skinned or Black male in a hoodie with a black backpack and a foreign accent who tried to get into the restricted area." That factoid sort of disappeared by next day. Given the marathon was full of Jamaicans and Kenyans and other international entrants, and that the spectator area was full of their family members who didn't know their way around, it would have been more of a surprise not to have had an incident of one of them ending up in the wrong place. Any release of specific descriptions of a suspect has a high likelihood of reducing the likelihood of witnesses remembering information about a perpetrator who doesn't fit that description.

  48. Anon_Lurker says

    There is too much speculation and comment by the media who generally know absolutely nothing.

    Richard Jewell was basically lynched by the media because they needed a face for the story. He was harassed mercilessly by incompetent "journalists".

    My first reaction when I heard about the Saudi student was Richard Jewell again. The media has latched on this student as if he did the bombing and the lynching will be on Tuesday. Right now, the media and by extension the public has no credible information about who did this or even why.

  49. Nobody says

    I remember breathless media reports from the time saying that they had found items like nails in the man's garage and thinking "WTF" the whole time as it was obvious that they had no real evidence on him and were coming out with the stupidest connections imaginable. Who doesn't have nails in their garage? Who doesn't have bleach? Yes, such things can be misused, but it would be weird if people didn't own such things.

    Alas, many people were less skeptical.

  50. James Pollock says

    With regards to "ecoterrorism", there are several sub-varieties. Some very carefully target only property (sugar in the fuel tanks of construction vehicles), some attempt to target only property but create needless risk (tree-spiking with warnings that trees are spiked), and some are outright reckless (anything involving fire). Lumping them all together is misleading. I would argue that careful targeting of property only is definitionally not "terrorism" of any kind. (Which is not to say that destruction of the property of others is to be tolerated or encouraged, just that it's not in the same category as, say, Nicholls and McVeigh.)

  51. Todd Picayune says

    And even what we all know, after everything has been cleared up, more than 25% of Americans believe Jewell is still guilty. If he were still alive today, I would still feel a twinge of fear and hatred for his presence, and even now I feel a slight bit of relief that he is dead. If I feel this way, I suspect millions of people feel the same. Admit it.

  52. Reuven says

    The Media manage to withhold names of women who allege that someone raped them. Routinely. Surely they can withhold the names of detained suspects for any crime until, at least, there's an indictment.

  53. Michael says

    I was shocked to see CNN yesterday when they thought a suspect was arrested or identified, several times said that law enforcement would never make a mistake in an arrest of this magnitude. I wondered if they even remembered Atlanta.

  54. Mike B says


    I'm sure they don't. Hell, I've had at least 3 conversations with co-workers since Monday about Richard Jewell, all of which contained the phrase "you mean he wasn't the one who did it?"

  55. Bob A says

    Atlanta Journal-Constitution editors (at the time of the bombing) were and probably still are unadulterated pieces of crap; from my simple deductions based on information gleaned from others accounts, they're still the only ones that REFUSED to apologize to Richard Jewell – what a liberal bunch of a$$holes!!

  56. Darryl says

    Awesome. I'm sharing with my journalism class. We've spoken about media responsibility before and we've used Richard Jewell as an example. When I heard "suspect of interest" this week in association with Boston, I couldn't help but think back to Mr. Jewell. Thanks for this.

  57. SolidSquid says

    It's probably worth mentioning, some these pictures seem to be the same ones that Anonymous were sending around saying he looked suspicious because he wasn't paying attention to the running at the time the picture was taken. Considering Anon released the photos first, I have to wonder if the FBI have decided to roll with that so it seems they're making progress