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'The Suspect' Co-Author On The FBI's Misguided Investigation Into Richard Jewell


Let's turn now to a story from a couple of decades ago that's resonating today - the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where two people died and more than 100 were injured. As you may remember, Richard Jewell was the man at the center of the case. Jewell worked as a security guard during the Atlanta Olympics. He discovered a backpack containing three pipe bombs and helped to clear people from Atlanta Centennial Park before the backpack exploded.

Jewell was first hailed as a hero. But then he was named by local media as the focus of the FBI investigation into the bombing because he allegedly fit a dubious profile of a lone bomber. Jewell was eventually cleared, but not before his life was upended. He was publicly reviled and ridiculed. His home was searched, his associates questioned. And the FBI's handling of the case later was sharply criticized.

Now there's a movie out detailing these events. A new book provided some of the source material. Kent Alexander is with us now. He is the co-author of the book with journalist Kevin Salwen. It's called "The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, The FBI, The Media, And Richard Jewell, The Man Caught In The Middle." Kent Alexander was the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia at the time of the bombing, and he personally delivered the letter exonerating Jewell. He's with us now.

Mr. Alexander, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

KENT ALEXANDER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So you and your co-author, journalist Kevin Salwen, spent - what, five years? - looking back at the events of this case in which you both, you know, had a hand. How did the FBI end up focusing on the wrong man? How did it go so wrong?

ALEXANDER: It went wrong for a number of reasons. But first and foremost, there were calls coming in about Richard Jewell early on - one from Piedmont College, but then other calls. And Richard Jewell himself said some odd things - like, he asked if a tower would withstand a blast in the park - not the tower he was guarding, but another one. He asked people to take a picture of him and said he was going to be famous.

And so there were just a lot of things happening, including the fact that back in 1984, a real police officer found what was supposedly a bomb in a bus of a Turkish - a bunch of Turkish athletes, and he placed it there to be the hero. So they were just - there was just a lot of circumstantial stuff going on at the time.

MARTIN: Are there things that should have been obvious at the time? I mean, was there a rush to judgment? Was there a - because of sort of the pressure or the public pressure or the public scrutiny a desire to sort of home in on a particular person too quickly? I mean, what would you identify as, like, the key factors here?

ALEXANDER: There definitely was a rush to judgment by both law enforcement and the media. The key factors in law enforcement - or really single factor - was finding the bomber. And with looking back at it, the probably key thing that would have been helpful to go differently in my mind was the profile of the bomber, which was really a profile of Richard Jewell.

MARTIN: This whole question of profiling, of how people are viewed - they're viewed according to a type - is something that has become a very important subject, not just in sort of high-profile investigations like this but also sort of more broadly. I just wonder if there's something sort of fundamentally that needs to be reconsidered.

ALEXANDER: Profiling is something that has been reconsidered. I think profiling was probably in its heyday back then, where maybe too much credence was given to what a profiler said. Well, profiling is just a tool in an investigation. It doesn't show anybody's guilty or not guilty. In this case, it was an actual written profile - four pages, single-spaced. It singled out Richard Jewell.

the profiling, Michel, I think you're talking about writ large, you know, is the profiling that happens every day - the kid in the hoodie, the - you know, somebody sees someone who's - doesn't look like them, and they jump to some conclusions. And I think that one thing that this whole Richard Jewell case will help with in law enforcement and elsewhere is making people stop and think. And it's not just a description. It's not just a caricature at the end of an investigation. It's always a human being.

MARTIN: That was Kent Alexander, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and co-author with Kevin Salwen of the new book, "The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, The FBI, The Media, And Richard Jewell, The Man Caught In The Middle."

Kent Alexander, thanks so much for talking to us.

ALEXANDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.