by Richard Louv
Andy Warhol once said that "in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." And a suspect for five. Or so the Richard Jewell case suggests. While much has been said about it, one issue remains relatively unexamined: the misuse of psychological or demographic profiles by law enforcement and by the courts.
"Watching that case unfold, I'm worried about the use of profiling, about labeling," says Associate Justice Patricia Benke of the Fourth District Court of Appeals.
Benke is also a San Diego crime novelist; her fourth book will be about the use of technology and expert witnesses to convict an innocent man. What happened to Jewell was stranger than fiction.
In July, the 33-year-old security guard was praised as the hero of Atlanta because he first pointed police to the Centennial Olympic Park satchel bomb. A few days later, an anonymous FBI leak to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution fingered Jewell as the agency's top suspect.
The pivotal mistake, however, came several days before the leak. The FBI had obtained a search warrant by profiling Jewell as a man who was fascinated by cops, who knew about bombs, who would often "exceed his responsibilities" as a campus cop.
In retrospect, much of this seems specious. Jewell once took a course on explosives (a reasonable class for an ambitious security guard to take), he wanted to be a hero (so did most of the Olympic athletes; so does Bill Clinton) and he didn't have a girl friend (neither do some FBI agents).
Should a psychological profile constitute reasonable cause? "That's the central question," says Benke.
Under the Fourth Amendment, every citizen must be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
"To get a search warrant, you have to have reasonable cause to believe that there are fruits of crime or evidence of crime at the person's residence," explains San Diego Superior Court Judge Laura Hammes, who also is concerned about the case's implications.
The FBI admitted later that there was no evidence in the warrant request that Jewell had anything to do with the bombing other than being at the scene. Ironically, the media hounding that Jewell endured, which certainly ruined his reputation, may have saved him from an even more protracted encounter with the FBI and possibly the courts.
Other people caught up in the judicial system may not be so lucky.
Benke and others point to four converging trends: increased reliance by police and prosecutors on profiling; unprecedented collection of electronic data (some of it erroneous) on all of us; deferential court treatment given to experts who match the accused with typical criminal profiles and proliferating media capable of spreading an accusation around the world almost instantaneously.
"It's not that these profiles can't sometimes be useful, but the potential for misuse is frightening," she says. Unfortunately, she adds, the issue is "not a big topic of discussion in my profession."
Richard Louv's latest book is "The Web of Life." He also is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.