Jewell was born Richard White in Danville, Georgia, the son of Bobi, an insurance claims co-ordinator, and Robert Earl White, who worked for Chevrolet. Richard's parents divorced when he was four. His mother remarried, to John Jewell, an insurance executive, who adopted Richard. Jewell was married to Dana Jewell.
Centennial Olympic Park was designed as the "town square" of the Olympics, and thousands of spectators had gathered for a late concert and merrymaking. Sometime after midnight, July 27, 1996, Eric Robert Rudolph, a terrorist who would later bomb a gay nightclub and two abortion clinics, planted a green backpack containing a fragmentation-laden pipe bomb underneath a bench. Jewell was working as a security guard for the event. He discovered the bag and alerted Georgia Bureau of Investigation officers. This discovery was nine minutes before Rudolph called 9-1-1 to deliver a warning. Jewell and other security guards began clearing the immediate area so that a bomb squad could investigate the suspicious package. The bomb exploded 13 minutes later, killing Alice Hawthorne and injuring over one hundred others. A cameraman also died of a heart attack while running to cover the incident.
Early news reports lauded Jewell as a hero for helping to evacuate the area after he spotted the suspicious package. Three days later, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that the FBI was treating him as a possible suspect, based largely on a "lone bomber" criminal profile. For the next several weeks, the news media focused aggressively on him as the presumed culprit, labeling him with the ambiguous term "person of interest", sifting through his life to match a leaked "lone bomber" profile that the FBI had used. The media, to varying degrees, portrayed Jewell as a failed law enforcement officer who may have planted the bomb so he could "find" it and be a hero.
A Justice Department investigation of the FBI's conduct found the FBI had tried to manipulate Jewell into waiving his constitutional rights, by telling him he was taking part in a training film about bomb detection, although the report concluded "no intentional violation of Mr. Jewell's civil rights and no criminal misconduct" had taken place.
Two of the bombing victims filed lawsuits against Jewell on the basis of this reporting. In a reference to the Unabomber, Jay Leno called him the "Una-doofus". Other references include "Una-Bubba," and (of his mother) "Una-Mama." Jewell was never officially charged, but the FBI thoroughly and publicly searched his home twice, questioned his associates, investigated his background, and maintained 24-hour surveillance of him. The pressure only began to ease after Jewell's attorneys hired an ex-FBI agent to administer a polygraph which Jewell reportedly passed.
In October 1996, the investigating US Attorney, Kent Alexander, in an extremely unusual act, sent Jewell a letter formally clearing him, stating "based on the evidence developed to date ... 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".
After his exoneration, Jewell filed a series of lawsuits against the media outlets which he claimed had libeled him, primarily NBC News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and insisted on a formal apology from them. L. Lin Wood was the lead attorney in all of Jewell's libel cases.
In 2006, Jewell said the lawsuits were not about money, and that the vast majority of the settlements went to lawyers or taxes. He said the lawsuits were about clearing his name.
Jewell filed suit against his former employer Piedmont College, Piedmont College President Raymond Cleere and college spokesman Scott Rawles. Jewell's attorneys contended that Cleere called the FBI and spoke to the Atlanta newspapers, providing them with false information on Jewell and his employment there as a security guard. Jewell's lawsuit accused Cleere of describing Jewell as a "badge-wearing zealot" who "would write epic police reports for minor infractions."
Piedmont College settled for an undisclosed amount.
Jewell sued NBC News for this statement, made by Tom Brokaw: "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". Even though NBC stood by its story, the network agreed to pay Jewell $500,000.
On July 23, 1997, Jewell sued The New York Post for $15 million in damages, contending that the paper portrayed him in articles, photographs and an editorial cartoon as an "aberrant" person with a "bizarre employment history" who was probably guilty of the bombing. He eventually settled with the newspaper for an undisclosed amount.
Jewell also sued the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. According to Jewell, the paper's headline, FBI suspects 'hero' guard may have planted bomb, "pretty much started the whirlwind". In one article, the Atlanta Journal compared Richard Jewell's case to that of serial killer Wayne Williams.
The newspaper was the only defendant that did not settle with Jewell. The lawsuit remained pending for several years, after having been considered at one time by the Supreme Court of Georgia, and had become a part of case law regarding whether journalists could be forced to reveal their sources. Jewell's estate continued to press the case even after the trial court rejected all but one of Jewell's claims and after Jewell's death, but in July 2011 the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's rejection of those claims. The court of appeals affirmed that Jewell was "a limited-purpose public figure" and therefore Jewell not only had to prove that the defamatory quotes were false but that they were made with actual knowledge of their falsity or with a reckless disregard to whether they were false. The trial court had ruled that Jewell had not met that burden for all but one of his claims, and the court of appeals affirmed that ruling.
Although CNN settled with Jewell for an undisclosed monetary amount, CNN maintained its coverage was fair and accurate.
In July 1997, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, prompted by a reporter's question at her regular weekly news conference, expressed regret over the FBI's leak to the news media that led to the widespread presumption of his guilt, and apologized outright, saying, "I'm very sorry it happened. I think we owe him an apology. I regret the leak."
Also in 1997, Jewell made public appearances in film and television. He appeared in Michael Moore's 1997 film, The Big One. He had a cameo in the September 27, 1997 episode of Saturday Night Live, in which he jokingly fended off suggestions that he was responsible for the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana
On July 4, 2001, Jewell was honored as the Grand Marshal of the Carmel, Indiana's Independence Day Parade. Jewell was chosen in keeping with the parade's theme of "Unsung Heroes."
On April 13, 2005, Jewell was exonerated completely when Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to carrying out the bombing attack at the Centennial Olympic Park, as well as three other attacks across the South. On August 1, 2006, Georgia governor Sonny Perdue honored Jewell for his rescue efforts during the attack.
Jewell had worked in various law enforcement jobs, including as a police officer in Pendergrass, Georgia. He worked as a sheriff's deputy in Meriwether County, Georgia until his death. He also gave speeches at colleges.
Jewell died August 29, 2007, at the age of 44. He was suffering from severe heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes.
In 2014, Fox announced that they had secured the filming rights to Marie Brenner's 1997 Vanity Fair article "American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell" with Jonah Hill signed on to play Jewell and Leonardo DiCaprio set to play his attorney.
There is a small bridge named in his honor east bound Georgia Highway 82 between Mile Markers 15 & 16 (Waycross to Tifton).