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Impatient Media Wrong to Indict Jewell

Column by David S. Kelman

Monday, Barbara Jewell, mother of Richard Jewell, made a plea to President Clinton to clear her son's name with regard to the Olympic Park bombing. You remember Richard Jewell, don't you? Briefly considered a hero in the saga of the Olympic Park bombing, his image was quickly turned into that of a disturbed, villainous bomber. In my hometown of Atlanta, the coverage was especially fierce. The newspaper ran pages of stories about every detail of the hero now quickly assumed to be a phony. Today, it appears that Jewell will never be charged with any wrongdoing. I think that this affair provides a good opportunity to illustrate what I find to be some mildly disturbing trends in American society today.

Don't get me wrong; Richard Jewell was no perfect angel. His past record in security and law enforcement was not that of an Eagle Scout. At his previous security job at northern Georgia's Piedmont College, he was known by some to be overzealous and on a power trip. He even ran into trouble by impersonating an officer in the Atlanta area. Before his Piedmont College job, when he actually was a police deputy in a northern Georgia county, he crashed a patrol car while drag racing with another police officer.

This less-than-spotless-record, however, relates to one of my points of concern. Yes, Jewell was not perfect, but I found it a stretch to instantly treat him virtually as the anti-Christ himself, as many did. Maybe I could see him forcing kids to keep their shoes while playing in the park fountain, but planting a bomb? If anything, Jewell wanted control, not death and fake heroism. The reason that Jewell even became a suspect, however, was because the president of Piedmont College didn't like him or his record. The president of the college suggested to the FBI that Jewell should be thoroughly scrutinized. That's all it took. Many in the press and society filled in the rest and accepted it all with little real evidence. It was so easy to do because Jewell was someone who did not have a record which much of society approved, and arguably, rightly so.

I think many went too far, however. It seems that the trend this situation highlights is a willingness to quickly assume that one type of fault in a person means that person could be capable of any other kind of crime. In this case, there were no shades of disapproval; being a loony cop equaled being an assumed murderer.

Another problem highlighted by these events is what seems to be a lack of real understanding of how our judicial system is intended to work. Richard Jewell was at worst a suspect, nothing more. He was not arrested, he was not indicted, he was not tried, he was not found guilty. At the suspect stage, I argue that Jewell's name should never have even been mentioned to the public. The FBI, however, has a knack for "leaking" this kind of information.

In my view, the way the judicial system needs to be understood is that arrest means serious suspicion, and indictment means enough suspicion for a trial, but no more than that. I can understand - though not usually approve of - many people making up their minds as early as the point where an indictment is issued. It seems too many people don't really understand, however, that being an unarrested suspect means practically nothing. In this case, people were so eager to have someone to blame that a mere suspect became virtually equivalent to a convicted killer.

Eagerness brings me to my last concern. There can be little argument that news events, along with many other things in daily life, reach our homes much faster today than ever before. When it comes to collecting evidence and forming judicial arguments in major crimes, though, things must proceed slower than today's computer-age pace. The problem is, all the people operating at this pace are coming to expect to instantly have a conclusion to the events after the crime. The judicial process can not - and I say should not - keep up. Patience does not need to become a lost art.

So, what bearing does my diatribe have on those of us here at MIT? Yes, it does have a connection; MIT is a hectic place. There is a lot going on, and there are a lot of people. It's easy to get mindlessly caught up in whatever you are doing with your days here, be it your classes, your social life, or your other activities. We hopefully won't be having any pipe bombs exploding anytime soon, but chances are, something not so positive (whether it really is a big deal or just seems like it to you) will happen to you sometime this year.

When it does, just remember the three things that I hope you will get out of this. When something bad happens, don't expect to always get a quick fix; be thorough in your solution. Understand that just because you've been told that someone or something might be the cause of your problem, don't jump to conclusions; determine things for yourself. Finally, just because you don't like someone or the way that person does things doesn't mean the person is capable of doing all sorts of bad things to you; consider people by their total character, not just some of their views, and use that as a guide to predicting their actions.