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Precisely 20 years ago—on July 27, 1996—terror struck the Summer Olympics in Atlanta when a pipe bomb exploded during a concert at Centennial Olympic Park, killing one mother and injuring more than 100. President Bill Clinton called the attack “an act of cowardice that stands in sharp contrast to the courage of the Olympic athletes.”

As TIME’s August 5, 1996, cover story described the scene of the crime and how the atmosphere of the games shifted from hope to fear:

In the aftermath of the bombing, however, attention shifted to the mismanagement of the case.

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Security guard Richard Jewell had first been hailed as a hero for noticing the knapsack under a park bench and then identified as the FBI’s key suspect. Among other missteps during the investigation, agents asked him to come in for a videotaped interview, telling him it was a training video, but it wasn’t clear to Jewell that he was a suspect — a tactic that the Department of Justice a year later deemed a “major error in judgment.” Unable to find enough evidence to target him, the FBI cleared him after three months.

But while the feds were ending their investigation, Jewell was just starting to go after the against journalists who had covered the probe, seeking redress for the articles that might have led readers to assume his guilt. He sued and settled with some news outlets, while seeking corrections and clarifications from others (including TIME), but the media’s coverage of the investigation stayed with him up until his death in 2007 at age 44. Kent Alexander, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said in a New York Times documentary on the Jewell case that “the obvious lesson learned from Richard Jewell is avoid identifying people as a suspect if there’s not a really good reason to do so, because it can lead to just what happened in Richard Jewell’s case, the identification of someone who was not only innocent, but a hero.”

The FBI charged the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, in 1998 after linking the attack to similar ones at a gay nightclub and at abortion clinics. Rudolph fled, setting off one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history. In May 2003, a rookie cop arrested him after randomly spotting him at a grocery store in rural North Carolina. TIME’s article on the capture described him as a Holocaust denier who lived in the woods. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to life in prison, after confessing that the blast at the Olympics was supposed “to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the word for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.”

But one insight from the TIME’s 1996 cover story that will resonate with readers 20 years later:

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at

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