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Georgia’s highest court won’t review Jewell libel case

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Earlier this week the Georgia Supreme Court declined to review a lower court decision in the long-running libel case against…

Earlier this week the Georgia Supreme Court declined to review a lower court decision in the long-running libel case against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed by Richard Jewell, who was wrongfully accused of the 1996 Olympic Park bombing, and carried on by his family since his death in 2007.

The ruling effectively ended the 15-year litigation battle that began when Jewell sued for libel, saying that the newspaper damaged his reputation when it reported that federal investigators named the park security guard a suspect in the bombing that left two dead and over 100 injured. Three months after the bombing, Jewell was officially cleared as a suspect. In 2005, Eric Rudolph, who lead the FBI on a five year manhunt, confessed to the Olympic bombing and three other bombing incidents in the South. He is now serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary.

In July, the Court of Appeals found the Journal-Constitution truthfully reported on a criminal case and such reporting is not actionable in a libel case, said the newspaper’s attorney Peter Canfield.

The court found that, “because the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published – even though the investigators’ suspicions were ultimately unfounded – they cannot form the basis of a defamation action against the Media Defendants.”

Attorney Lin Wood, who represents the Jewell estate, said he is not sure if they will take further action. Two options are to ask the Georgia Supreme Court to reconsider it's decision, or seek review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

“I’d imagine 25 years from now when people talk about the Atlanta Centennial games, Richard Jewell’s name will come up before Eric Rudolph’s,” Wood said. “He was a legitimate hero and never saw anything from his heroism.”

On Saturday, July 27, 1996 — in the middle of the summer Olympics– Jewell notified officials of a suspicious knapsack left in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. The security guard assisted other officials in clearing the area before the bomb detonated.

Jewell’s heroism was short lived and by Tuesday morning, authorities named him a person of interest. The newspaper, as well as other media organizations, reported that Jewell was named a suspect. In October 1996, federal investigators officially cleared Jewell, who was never charged.

Three months later, Jewell sued multiple media organizations, including the Journal-Constitution, for libel. All of the media defendants, except for the Journal-Constitution, settled with Jewell. In 1998, Jewell's counsel filed a motion requesting the names of the Journal-Constitution's sources.

A trial court granted Jewell’s motion and ordered the newspaper to identify all confidential sources – which they refused – and reporters Kathy Scruggs and Ron Martz were held in contempt and faced possible incarceration. The newspaper filed an appeal, which the Court of Appeals of Georgia upheld in 2001.

At that time, the court also declared Jewell a “voluntary limited purpose public figure,” a category that requires that actual malice be proven in a libel lawsuit. A private figure would not need to prove actual malice in a libel suit.

The court also reversed the trial court’s order placing the Journal-Constitution in contempt for refusing to disclose unnamed sources.