Ethics Train Wreck Analysis: The Richard Jewell Case

“Richard Jewell,” Clint Eastwood’s excellent but much maligned film about a historical episode with many ethics twists and turns, is extremely accurate and fair in all respects, except for the glaring exception of the screenwriter  Billy Ray’s representation that reporter Kathy Scruggs obtained the information that Jewell was under suspicion by the FBI in exchange for one night stand with the agency’s lead investigator. This was the point where the Richard Jewell Ethics Train Wreck of 1996 acquired a car containing the 2019 movie “Richard Jewell.”

Let’s look at those other cars.

I. Jewell

Jewell was a socially awkward, lonely, obese man who lived with his mother. He was in many ways a stereotypical misfit with low  self-esteem, who developed ambitions about becoming a law enforcement officer, a job that would would provide him with the respect and power that he lacked and wanted. The film begins with Jewell’s stint as an office supply clerk in a small public law firm, where he becomes friends with attorney Watson Bryant. Jewell quits to pursue his dream of becoming a law enforcement officer, and Bryant, in saying good-bye, asks his friend to promise that if he ever acquires the authority he seeks, he won’t become a jerk, and abuse it.

This was a real life conversation. Bryant recognized that Jewell was a border-line Asperger’s sufferer, whether or not he knew the name or the clinical condition, and exactly the kind of personality who should never be given a shield and a gun.

Jewell took a job as a campus security officer at Piedmont College, and rapidly realized Watson Bryant’s worst fears by reacting to his authority by abusing it, being over-zealous and generating an unusual number of complaints from students. Jewell was fired, but the need for security personnel at the upcoming Atlanta Olympics gave Jewell another chance at some authority at least. He probably shouldn’t have had such a chance. Jewell was not a man who should have been in the security field or the law enforcement field; his judgment was poor, and his emotional problems made him a bad risk.

Thus the conditions for the ethics train wreck were put in place. It was up to moral luck whether hiring Richard Jewell would turn out to be a disaster, or a  fortunate near miss. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely, a classic example of a bad decision having a good result—at least for a while.

2. The Bomb

In the early morning of July 27, 1996, Jewell, now working in Atlanta’s Centennial Park as part of the Summer Olympics security force, noticed an abandoned backpack by a bench. Over-zealous, officious and a fanatic about following procedure, Jewell insisted on reporting the pack as a “suspicious package,” despite the chiding of his colleagues, who wanted to take it to Lost and Found. If, as was overwhelmingly likely, the backpack had been just a backpack, Jewell probably would have been mocked. But again moral luck took a hand. He was right. It was a bomb. Jewell and other officers began clearing the area, and the bomb went off, killing one victim, Alice Hawthorne, and wounding many, still  far less serious damage than what might have occurred had Jewell not been so scrupulous in his discharge of his duties.

3. The Hero, the Scapegoats, and the Tip

Was Jewell a hero? Sure he was, by the modern diminished sense of the word.  He was, however, as he always insisted, just doing his job. Jewell was not a fame-seeker. The role he wanted to play in life was Selfless Law Enforcement Official. The news media, as is their nature, paraded him before cameras as if he were trying to exploit the luck of his being the right person in the right place at the right time. Jewell was approached by a book publisher, seeking to sign him up for a ghost-written quickie book.

Meanwhile, the FBI agents who had been assigned to Centennial Park were chafing under the knowledge that they were being criticized for the bombing and injuries occurring on their watch. The pressure was on to find the bomber, and they lacked leads. Thus when one very weak lead dropped into their lap,  they attacked it with the same kind of mistake-prone excess of zeal that had gotten Richard Jewell fired at his previous job.

Because of their felt need to redeem themselves, the FBI agents did not process a wild-hair bit of information with the proportionate degree of skepticism. Human nature is the ultimate conflict of interest, and this was a tipping point in the ethics train wreck to come.

The tipping point was provided by  Dr. W. Ray Cleere, the President of Piedmont College and  the man who had fired Jewell from his campus police job there. He didn’t like Jewell and had gotten into several disagreements with him, including an episode in which Jewell wanted to arrest students for smoking pot on campus.  Cleere called the FBI tip line and described Jewell as strange, a “badge-wearing zealot” who “would write epic police reports for minor infractions.” 

Was this unethical? It is a good example of how motivations are so multifaceted that they are often useless in making ethical determinations. If he genuinely thought that Jewell was the kind of person who would hurt people to make himself look good, then the call was in good faith. However nothing Cleere knew about Jewell would suggest that to an objective observer. It is likely that his tip was influenced by  non-ethical considerations beyond being a “good citizen”: he just didn’t like the guy. (Watson Bryant had noticed similar tendencies, but he did like Jewell, and thus didn’t suspect him.) However, if the FBI hadn’t been desperate to find someone, anyone, who could represent progress in the investigation, the officious college president’s fingering of his  ex-employee would have been harmless. Once again, this was capricious moral luck at work.

Jewell later sued Cleere and the college, and received an undisclosed settlement.

4. Profiling and the Leak

If we want to find an example that demonstrates the unethical side of profiling, the Richard Jewell case is perfect. Profilers are exalted in popular culture now, from the NetFlix series “Mindhunters” to “Criminal Minds,” the “FBI,” and too many other TV procedurals to list.  Thanks to Cleere’s description of Jewell, the FBI fit him into a profile of “the lone bomber.”  In fact, there was no such official profile; the FBI essentially constructed it around what they knew about Jewell. The resulting profile, like all profiles, had one major flaw, however: it ignored the flesh and blood individual. Richard Jewell was a social outcast, lonely, inclined to over-use authority when he had it, and had reasons to welcome the prospect of celebrity. He was also, however, a kind, law-abiding man who was dedicated to being the best person he could be. That part didn’t fit the profile, but once the FBI investigators focused on Jewell, their judgment was warped by confirmation bias. Suddenly he, not the eager TV news producers, was responsible for his TV appearances. The FBI decided that a book deal was part of Jewell’s plan all along, though he was surprised when he was approached about the project. The fact that Jewell “appeared uncomfortable talking about the victims” on television was interpreted as a sign of guilt; in truth, it was just compassion, as well as Jewell’s often expressed feelings of remorse that he wasn’t able to act sooner.

The FBI’s total focus on Jewell as the likely bomber rather than a possible suspect has been much criticized as a breach of agency investigation protocol, but it is certainly a common breach in murder investigations at all levels of law enforcement, one that has led to many wrongful prosecutions, and savaged the lives of many innocent people.

The Richard Jewell Ethics Train Wreck got up to full speed when an ambitious Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter,  Kathy Scruggs, obtained a leak from the FBI, and the paper’s editors put it on the front page. This was irresponsible and unethical journalism, similar to that depicted in the Paul-Newman-Sally Field film “Absence of Malice,” which was released five years later.  The FBI leak was unethical as well as illegal.  For the paper to focus public attention and local animus on Jewell based on nothing but speculation was unconscionable, but again, non-ethical considerations ruled. The FBI leaker wanted the public to know that an investigation was proceeding, to relieve some of the heat on the agency.  Scruggs wanted to be Bob Woodward. Her paper wanted to make money. Nobody was thinking about Richard Jewell, and what this would do to him.

5. The Feeding Frenzy

Now that he was officially a public figure, the mass media pursued their own objectives, and the life and reputation of Richard Jewell became irrelevant, not even an afterthought. The Golden Rule was nowhere to be found.  The media reports gave the impression that Jewell was probably guilty, referring to him as a “person of interest” rather than a possible person of interest.  Remember, the FBI had no evidence linking him to the bomb. Scruggs’ article, unforgivably,  had compared Jewell to convicted Atlanta child murderer Wayne Williams. The New York Post called him “a fat, failed former sheriff’s deputy.” The Philadelphia Daily News had a the front-page headline “Bubba the Bomber?” accompanied by a sinister-looking photo of  the overweight Jewell’s head.

Supposed journalism icon Tom Brokaw descended into complete fake news, saying on the air,   “The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case. They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still some holes in this case.” (NBC was sued by Jewell for this, and settled for a half-million dollars.)

In one of his more regrettable moments, Tonight Show host Jay Leno called him the “Unadoofus” and compared him to the thug skater Tonya Harding and her boyfriend paid to attack Nancy Kerrigan.  “What is it about the Olympic Games that brings out big fat stupid guys?”Leno asked.

As Clint Eastwood’s film makes very clear, there was nothing stupid about Richard Jewell.

4. That Unimpeachable Model of Trustworthiness and Rectitude, the FBI

The next time someone expresses shock and horror that anyone would impugn the ethics and trustworthiness of the FBI, direct them to the Richard Jewell Ethics Train Wreck.

Embarrassed by the leak and the media publicity, the FBI decided that it had to justify its suspicions, the headlines and the jokes by proving Richard Jewell was the bomber, an objective driven, at this point, by the agency’s own interests and bias. As the film accurately reveals,

  • The FBI put Jewell under 24-hour surveillance. They twice  searched his mother’s home, where he was living, with reporters present. They  questioned his acquaintances. All of this was without any evidence of wrongdoing.

Eager to cooperate and seeing himself as a friend of law enforcement, Jewell deliberately began wearing a bright yellow shirt in public so his FBI trackers “can see me easier.”

  • The FBI recruited  Jewel’s friend Tim Attaway to wear a wire when he was invited to have dinner with Richard and his mother.  Attaway quizzed Jewell on the night of the bombing, and Jewell drew him a diagram of the sound-and-light tower.

Jewell didn’t learn of this betrayal until after the investigation ended.

  • As accurately shown in the movie, FBI agents told Jewell that they wanted him to help with the production of a Quantico training video to get him to come to their headquarters. Then they asked him to “play” a suspect for the camera, and to sign a “prop” waiver of his rights. Jewell refused to sign, saying he was not comfortable with the session, and demanded to speak with his lawyer (old friend Watson Bryant), who informed him that he had been deceived, and that he was a suspect.

Jewell was never arrested or charged, because no incriminating evidence was ever uncovered. A Justice Department investigation concluded that the FBI had acted illegally and unconstitutionally by tricking  Jewell into speaking with them, attempting to manipulate him into waiving his constitutional rights,  lying by telling him he was going to be part of a training video, and leaking to the media.  Incredibly, however, investigation determined that there had been “no intentional violation of Mr. Jewell’s civil rights and no criminal misconduct” on the part of the FBI. Four agents were disciplined, none severely.

6. The Rest of the Story

On October 26, 1996, Atlanta US Attorney Kent Alexander sent Jewell a letter formally clearing him, stating that “Richard Jewell is not considered a target of the federal criminal investigation into the bombing on July 27, 1996, at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.  In July 1997, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno expressed regret over the FBI’s leak to the news media that led to the widespread presumption of his guilt, and said, “I’m very sorry it happened. I think we owe him an apology. I regret the leak.” Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue officially  honored Jewell for his actions in 1996.

Jewell made some public appearances, including a cameo on Saturday Night Live in which he denied that he was responsible for the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. In 2001, in keeping with its theme of “Unsung Heroes,”Jewell was  the Grand Marshal of the Carmel, Indiana’s Independence Day Parade.

He worked in various law enforcement jobs, finally achieving his dream of being a police officer in Pendergrass, Georgia. On April 13, 2005, Richard Jewell was finally exonerated from suspicion  when Eric Rudolph, as part of a plea deal, pleaded guilty to  the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park, as well as to three other bombings

Jewell worked as a deputy sheriff in Meriwether County, Georgia until his death on August 29, 2007 at the age of 44. On each anniversary of the bombing until his health failed, he placed a rose at the Centennial Olympic Park scene where  Alice Hawthorne died.


Facts: History Hollywood, Slate

11 thoughts on “Ethics Train Wreck Analysis: The Richard Jewell Case

  1. The FBI with egg on their face forgot that a cardinal rule in conducting an investigation over a high profile case like this is to be skeptical about promising leads. The Dean at the college was obviously embarrassed over his role in hiring overzealous Jewell as a security officer and had it in for him. Still, the FBI should have held back instead of resorting to thuggish deceptive tactics to attempt to entrap Jewell.

    • I didn’t push this, but its impossible to read about the FBI’s handling of Jewell without thinking about how it used such dubious sources to go after the President and his campaign. Why do we trust these people, again? Why is the President questioning their motives and competence outrageous?

  2. Great history lesson. I do have one question. If the media hound you into making statements how does that make you a public figure that allows the press to opine about you without needing corroberation?

    It seems to me that one must put themselves out as a public figure, actors activists etc. To give the press a pass on liable issues everyone they report on would be a public figure.

  3. Thanks for this. It’s good to be reminded why you should instinctively balk at government authority. That authority is casually and routinely abused without consequence and complacency in the face of the this authority is an open invitation for greater abuse.

    I’m very excited to see the constitutional arguments that will come in the wake of these very arguably unconstitutional quarantine edicts. I don’t know if the government actually has this power and is using it appropriately. They may very well be in the ethical and constitutional right, but I’m sure as hell not going to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  4. I’ve been skeptical of the FBI ever since learning about J. Edgar Hoover, and how he used the organization to illegally collect information that could be used to blackmail people he deemed ‘political subversives’.

    I agree Jack, much of the organization’s conduct during the ‘RussiaGate’ investigation was highly suspect, as there were definitely persons who were actively involved with the investigation that had an axe to grind with the president (see Peter Strzok & Lisa Page).

  5. Ah the FBI in the 90s. On the one(fictional) hand we had Clarice Starling, Dale Cooper, and Mulder & Scully. On the other, reality, we had Ruby Ridge, Waco, and The Centennial Park Bombing.

  6. Not that there seem to be many similar character traits, but I wonder if there may not be a Zimmerman story in there . . . a century or so in the future.

  7. It’s rather sad to see such narrow minded people comparing this case to Trump’s.
    Trump DID BREAK THE LAW. And more has come out since the FBI investigated Trump and his actions.
    Trump has violated many rule of ethics. The latest is asking the that his golf course in U.K. host events.

    • Most of what has come out is since that the FBI broke the law investigating the President. If you are going to make an assertion like “Trump broke the law” that here you are obligated to specify what you are talking about.

      Regarding ethics, the UK golf course matter was indeed unethical, though nothing came of it. The President has no ethics. I’ve been writing about that for almost ten years. This is a good example, though, and I’ll post on it. Thanks.

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