Affidavits released in Olympic bombing investigation
GEORGIA–A federal District Court in Atlanta on Oct. 23 ordered the release of affidavits submitted by the FBI in connection with its investigation of Richard Jewell, the security guard who on Oct. 26 was cleared of involvement in the July bombing at Centennial Olympic Park and who has said he will sue media organizations that reported he was the suspect.
The court ruled that three media organizations that had sued for access had a common law right to review the affidavits.
Based upon the affidavits, filed with the court under seal, Magistrate Judge Gerrilyn Brill issued search warrants in July authorizing the FBI to take hair samples from Jewell and to search his home, pickup truck and storage unit.
Brill had ruled in early September that Jewell could view redacted copies of the affidavits on the condition that he and his attorneys refrain from publicly discussing them. In accordance with the court’s order, the government provided Jewell with copies of the documents that deleted references to the bomb’s construction and the investigation. Jewell asked the court to allow further disclosure, arguing that it had allowed too much information to be redacted.
In mid-September, The Atlanta Journal, The Atlanta Constitution and WSB-TV petitioned the court for access to the redacted documents. The government opposed the media groups’ petition, arguing that there is no constitutional right of access to sealed search warrant affidavits and that the common law right does not require a compelling interest to keep the documents sealed. The government also argued that releasing the documents would damage its investigation and set a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize future investigations.
Judge J. Owen Forrester ruled on behalf of the media parties in late October. While finding no First Amendment right of access to search warrant affidavits, the judge held that the common law right to inspect judicial records applied. Forrester reasoned that the government’s interest in maintaining the secrecy of its investigation would not be compromised because the investigation had ended, the media sought only “limited information,” and much of the information sought had already been made public through government leaks. The court also noted that Jewell did not oppose release of the documents.
Forrester also ruled that Brill had been “overly cautious” in redacting the documents prior to delivering them to Jewell, and ordered the release of any additional information unrelated to the protection of the governmental interests articulated in her order.
However, after conducting an electronic database search, the judge determined that the witnesses’ names listed in the affidavits should remain sealed, with the exception of one whose name was already in the public domain. The judge also ordered the continued sealing of the items seized from Jewell during the searches of his property.
In early November, Jewell demanded that The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution retract allegedly libelous assertions contained in articles about the bombing published between July 30 and August 1, 1996. According to Jewell, the newspapers “unfairly and unlawfully” portrayed him as the bomber, despite the fact that Jewell had not been arrested or charged with any crime. Counsel for the newspapers responded that its coverage of the bombing investigation was “appropriate,” and that “identifying the focus of an official investigation prior to actual arrest or charge” is not “inherently immoral or unethical, much less illegal.” (In re: Four Search Warrants; Jewell v. Cox Enterprises, Inc.; Media Counsel: Peter Canfield, Atlanta)