THE CASE OF RICHARD JEWELL, the wrongly suspected Atlanta Olympics bomber, illustrates the dangers of reporters and editors uncritically accepting leaks from the FBI, prosecutors and the police.
Jewell, a security guard trained in bomb recognition, found the bomb, which, unfortunately, exploded before authorities could dispose of it.Jewell thought he was a hero but quickly became a scapegoat. It was a high-profile case for which the FBI needed a suspect. Relying on psycho-profiling, the FBI settled on Jewell as a suspect. Law enforcement officers apparently put his identity into play with leaks to the media. Immediately, Jewell was identified as an FBI suspect in planting the bomb, possibly to make himself a hero.
Lacking any evidence against Jewell, his name may have been leaked with the hope that people would be prompted to come forward with evidence that could be used to build a case. This has become a standard technique of some law enforcement agencies and it is highly unethical. Moreover, it is unreliable. People may come forward with less than reliable "evidence" because they want to be a hero. If some people can plant bombs for that reason, others can lie about what they saw for the same reason.
The media's inclination to accept at face value self-serving leaks from prosecutors has sometimes turned reporters and editors into an adjunct of the prosecutorial process. In high profile cases when prosecutors lack evidence with which to win in court, they often focus on obtaining a plea bargain to settle the case. The accused is pressured to admit to some lesser charge in order to avoid a major trial.
Prosecutors manipulate the media to build pressure against the accused to cop a plea. Everyone knows that trial by jury is often unreliable, and many innocent people fear the risks of a courtroom.
The technique of coercing a plea often works even better against big corporations unwilling to go to trial. Public policy has forced companies to appoint to their boards outside directors who are independent of management. This is supposed to ensure that the board of directors is a better watchdog. But there is a downside: Outside directors are often unfamiliar with the business.
We saw some of these elements in the recent price-fixing case against agribusiness giant Archer-Daniels-Midland. The government leaked portions of its case against several company officials when it announced its investigation into company operations. This, in turn, brought out the lawyers in search of corporate victims who could claim they were victims of the price-fixing. The lawyers know companies often may settle such suits quickly in order to get rid of them in advance of any possible indictment. Otherwise, the suits piggyback on the indictment.
Once ADM ran from this fight, it was just a question of prosecutors escalating leaks about indictments until they reached the degree of pressure necessary to obtain guilty pleas. The end came when a committee of ADM's outside directors forced the company to settle the case by paying a fine of $100 million. With $2.5 billion of liquid assets on hand, the directors say this was a good deal.
Prosecutors have learned that pressure tactics are more efficient than court cases and that they can use the media, Wall Street stock analysts, institutional investors and shareholder activists to bring company officials to settlement, guilty or not.