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MIKE DOWNEY

It Was Clear Case of Rush to Judgment

October 28, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

This was the year I saw a man lynched, and not with a rope. The man in question is Richard Jewell, 33, who was officially cleared Saturday as a suspect in the July 27 pipe-bomb blast during the Atlanta Olympics that left two people dead and terrified thousands more.

I don't know if O.J. Simpson killed his ex-wife, or if Timothy McVeigh blew up that Oklahoma City office building, or if Theodore J. Kaczynski truly is the so-called "Unabomber," but one thing I do know: These men were charged with a crime. Richard Jewell was not.

He was never arrested. The lawyer he hired, it was to keep hounds at bay, not defend him in court. Prisoners, at least, have bars and guards to separate them from prying eyes, but Richard Jewell became a prisoner of his own domicile, comings and goings monitored at all times, looking guilty before being proved innocent.

In high school, a teacher spooled a film through a projector and made us watch a movie, "The Ox-Bow Incident," starring Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan, as a warning against guilt by suspicion. In it, accused rustlers Anthony Quinn and Dana Andrews are hanged from a tree, while cowboys such as Fonda and Morgan can do little else but watch.

That film stayed with me. Prejudgment would become an occupational hazard, at times, in later years, but never on a scale of life and death. We encountered abusive individuals in my line of work, or suspected drug users and pushers, and attempted to show restraint until an actual verdict could be reached, as in the Mike Tyson matter, but also failed from time to time, hanging someone out to dry.

Later on, along came the Simpson case, where, no matter what outcome prevailed in a court of law, public pundits such as Rosie O'Donnell or Norm MacDonald continued to assail the man as someone who slaughtered the mother of his children with a butcher's knife, simply because they were convinced that he had done so, jury be damned. The "media" didn't proclaim O.J. guilty; comedians did.

Somewhere, someone today must see parallels in the stories of O.J. Simpson and Richard Jewell, two accused men, endeavoring to function in society while all around them, passersby whisper as though having spotted an Elephant Man, hideously deformed. With the former's case having polarized much of America racially, one wonders whether Simpson should envy Jewell, as one hero turned villain to another, for being "cleared" as a suspect, or resents him for it.

The obvious difference is that Simpson had been a logical defendant, linked by a documented history with the victim and physical evidence at the scene that led to an actual arrest. Two plus two might equal five, but at least, as opposed to Richard Jewell's case, presumptions could be made as to motive and opportunity. Whereas about all Jewell appeared to have was opportunity.

Random violence exists in America, however, and therefore no sensible reason seemed necessary to explain the explosion at Olympic Centennial Park in the early hours of July 27, 1996, when theoretically Richard Jewell discovered a bomb that the FBI later suspected him of planting.

I was in the lobby of the downtown Hyatt hotel when the bomb went off, perhaps six blocks away. At that helter-skelter moment of my life, I, like the FBI, had no way of knowing what sort of terrorism this was, the act of a madman or a prankster. America has been blowing up, bit by bit, from Oklahoma City to midtown Manhattan, and explanations don't always present themselves.

Nobody took "credit" for the bombing. No terrorist organizations congratulated themselves. The Olympic Games being a worldwide event, anything was possible, but a pipe bomb during a rock-and-roll concert at a public park? What point was being made? For all I knew, somebody out there hated the band.

A few days later, an Atlanta newspaper came out with an "Extra" edition, the kind I grew up seeing in old Bogart and Cagney movies, with a kid on the street corner shouting today's headline and, "Read all about it!" It was a paper that had a degree of urgency to it, with news that couldn't wait. The FBI had a suspect.

His name was Richard Jewell, and he lived with his mother, and he always wanted to be a hero, all of which were presented in days to come as pertinent facts. And there he stood, branded. I wondered what the family or friends of the woman slain by the bomb would do, given 15 minutes with Richard Jewell in private. Would they stone him, pound him with their fists, ask, "How could you do such a thing?"

Years and years later, historians have come to wonder whether Lizzie Borden was guilty, whether the Rosenbergs, Bruno Hauptmann or other notorious figures were. Justice demands someone hang from the highest limb. Richard Jewell's neck is still red, from the tightness of the rope.

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