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Cleared Olympics bombing suspect again seeks journalists' sources

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Cleared Olympics bombing suspect again seeks journalists’ sources

  • Richard Jewell is back in court in his ongoing libel suit, seeking the names of sources for articles about his alleged connection to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing.

Aug. 7, 2003 — Attorneys for former Olympics security guard Richard Jewell and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution presented arguments July 24 on whether the newspaper must reveal confidential sources used for articles about an FBI investigation connecting Jewell with the 1996 Olympic park bombing. Jewell, who is no longer a suspect in the bombing, claims the information is necessary to prove his libel case against the newspaper.

Jewell sued the Journal-Constitution in 1997 after articles reported that he sought publicity for saving lives and that investigators thought he fit the profile of a lone terrorist. Authorities recently accused Eric Robert Rudolph, arrested in May after more than five years on the run, of planting the bomb.

According to news reports from the recent hearing, Jewell’s attorney, Lin Wood, argued that the identities of the reporters’ sources are necessary to the libel case.

The newspaper’s lawyer, Peter Canfield, said the articles at issue were accurate and, therefore, could not constitute libel.

The issue of disclosure of the newpaper’s confidential sources has come up before in the litigation. In April 1998, state court Judge John Mather ordered two Journal-Constitution reporters to identify those who informed them that Jewell was a suspect in the bombing. Mather repeated the order in March 1999 and then found the reporters in contempt after they refused to comply. The Journal-Constitution appealed and, in October 2001, the Georgia Court of Appeals dissolved the contempt order.

The appeals court said Mather had failed to properly balance Jewell’s need for the identities of the informants against the newspaper’s interest in protecting the sources’ privacy and freedom of the press.

After the Georgia Supreme Court declined Jewell’s appeal of the issue in February 2002, it went back to Mather’s court. Mather must now reconsider Jewell’s request using the guidelines set out by the appeals court.

“To properly perform this balancing test in a libel case, the trial court must require the plaintiff to specifically identify each and every purported statement he asserts was libelous, determine whether the plaintiff can prove the statements were untrue, taking into account all the other available evidentiary sources, including the plaintiff’s own admissions, and determine whether the statements can be proven false through the use of other evidence, thus eliminating the plaintiff’s necessity for the requested discovery,” the appeals court instructed in its 2001 opinion.

Mather has not yet issued a ruling.

Actions against the media for their reporting on FBI investigations may surface again in an unrelated case. The Baltimore Sun reported Saturday that Steven J. Hatfill, who was labeled a “person of interest” in the ongoing investigation of last year’s anthrax attacks, plans to file a libel lawsuit against members of the media and others.

Hatfill repeatedly has claimed that he had no part in the anthrax attacks and has voiced frustration with the FBI’s handling of the case.

Hatfill’s attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, of the Washington law firm Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis, would neither confirm nor deny his client’s intention to file suit.

(Jewell v. Cox Enters., Inc.; Media counsel: Peter Canfield, Atlanta) WT

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