A dramatic rescue of a dozen boys from a flooded cave in Thailand this summer was followed by a bizarre sideshow: a world-famous billionaire inventor groundlessly smearing one of the rescue advisers as a pedophile. On Aug. 28, Tesla CEO Elon Musk doubled down, taking to Twitter to ask why cave expert Vernon Unsworth hadn’t sued him over the slur.
“@elonmusk should check his mail before tweeting,” came a prompt reply illustrated with a photo of an intent-to-sue letter.
That mic-drop tweet came from the fingertips of L. Lin Wood, a Buckhead attorney who has become one of the nation’s top libel warriors after using similar in-your-face tactics to defend the honor of such clients as Richard Jewell, who was falsely accused of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, and the family members of JonBenét Ramsey, the child victim of a notorious unsolved murder.
“[The false accusations] change their life forever, because the shout of ‘guilty’ is never overcome by the whisper of innocence,” Wood said of his clients in a recent interview.
Over the years, Wood has represented both sides in prominent sexual misconduct and assault claims. Current clients include casino mogul Steve Wynn, who denies several workplace misconduct claims, and 15 years ago Wood represented the woman who accused basketball star Kobe Bryant of rape in a case that was later settled without admission of wrongdoing. Such cases leave him with some strong concerns about the “#MeToo movement” and the social media era.
While saying he is often the first to go to the “court of public opinion,” Wood is also concerned it “has no rules of evidence.”
“I don’t know what the future of reputation is going to be. We have normalized, in so many ways, heinous accusations,” Wood said, predicting the court system eventually will tighten protections against defamation.
Early career and Richard Jewell
Growing up in Macon, Wood saw his family interact with the court system in one of the worst possible ways: his father killed his mother. “I grew up in a family household of domestic violence,” he said.
While that was a factor in his decision to become a lawyer, he says his personal inclination to persuasion and advocacy was the prime motive. He recalls doing well as youth pastor for a day at his church at age 13.
“Everybody was telling me I was called by God to be a preacher, and I said, ‘No, I’m going to be a lawyer,’ ” Wood says.
His career began with medical malpractice defense in Macon. Then he moved to Atlanta to advocate for patients in such cases. After working at various firms and other specialties, including Medicare fraud cases, he now runs his own boutique civil litigation practice in Midtown. Formerly a longtime Sandy Springs resident, he now lives in Buckhead’s Peachtree Park, close to his office, in a relatively modest home. He says what he likes best about his work is his personal connection with his clients, not material goods he can gather with the fees.
“I don’t need a $5 million house. All I’d have is a lot of empty rooms,” he says, adding that he’s happy with his Buckhead neighborhood. “I love this part of the city. I love being surrounded by trees and the community.”
Wood’s success in libel litigation — still a major focus of his firm — started with the extraordinary case of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, which killed one person and injured more than 100. Jewell, a security guard at the park, was at first hailed as a hero for discovering the bomb and guiding people away from its blast zone. But an FBI investigation leak led to a media frenzy suggesting Jewell was himself the bomber.
Wood got the case as a referral from another lawyer who knew him as an aggressive courtroom advocate. Among the challenges: “I didn’t know anything about libel law at the time,” says Wood. He plunged in, learning as he went, in a case that “seems almost surreal” in retrospect.
Jewell had “the two most powerful entities in the world trying to put him in prison with the death penalty”— the U.S. government and the media, Wood said. “Those are spooky days.”
Wood said it is important to him that he believes his clients are innocent of the accusations against them, a decision he makes after reviewing the case and his “instincts” when talking to them. So his first meeting with Jewell — in a conference room that happened to overlook Centennial Olympic Park — was crucial, especially because Wood had counted himself among those suspecting him.
“Finally I said, ‘Richard, I’ll represent you if you want me to, but first you’ll have to accept my apology. … I thought you did it. I believed what I saw on TV. I believed what I read in the papers.’ ”
Wood’s fierce defense helped Jewell avoid prosecution and won some settlements, including from NBC News, and some cases continued even after Jewell’s untimely death in 2007 at age 44. The real criminal was later revealed to be Eric Rudolph, a hate-driven terrorist who had also bombed an Atlanta lesbian nightclub and clinics that performed abortions in Sandy Springs and Alabama.
But even Jewell’s vindication will not fully remove the cloud, Wood says, noting “his name does not appear in the [Olympic] park” and he never got a commendation from the International Olympic Committee or other Games organizers.
“People are going to remember Richard Jewell as the guy falsely accused of bombing the Olympics,” says Wood. “Richard should be remembered as a hero of the Centennial Olympic Games. Richard saved hundreds of innocent lives. … He was a legitimate hero.”
“I love Richard Jewell,” Wood adds. “I miss him every day.”
The Ramseys and presidential candidates
Wood soon was among the attorneys involved in another major media frenzy, the JonBenét Ramsey murder in Boulder, Colo., in 1996, where parents John and Patsy and brother Burke frequently became involved in lawsuits to clear their names. Over 20 years later, Wood is still representing John and Burke Ramsey in a pending case.
The Ramseys had previously lived in the Atlanta area; JonBenét was born here and is buried in Marietta. Wood said he got involved in the case when Patsy Ramsey heard about him after contacting a local family whose child had been murdered.
“People don’t know this. Patsy would hear about people who lost a child and reach out to them quietly,” Wood said.
As with Jewell, Wood developed a personal connection with the family, including Patsy, who died in 2006. “I was a pallbearer at Patsy’s funeral,” he said.
As Wood’s libel-law experience grew, he found himself involved in presidential campaigns. “I always said I want to represent somebody who could be president,” Wood says, “but realized if I’m representing them, they have a problem that might prevent that.”
That was the case with Herman Cain, whose 2012 Republican nomination attempt failed amid sexual misconduct allegations that he denied and fought with Wood’s representation. Wood said he also successfully represented another Republican contender, Rick Perry, by killing a pending Huffington Post story that would have reported some sort of allegations.
Other clients have included former California Congressman Gary Condit, who was caught up in a media frenzy over the still mysterious 2001 murder of Chandra Levy; Perri “Pebbles” Reid, manager of the R&B group TLC; casino and newspaper owner Sheldon Adelson; and “Dr. Phil” McGraw.
The ‘#MeToo’ era
The “#MeToo” movement of revealing long-suppressed stories of sexual abuse and harassment raises some concerns from Wood’s libel-lawyer perspective.
“I have a healthy respect for the ‘#MeToo’ movement,” Wood says. He said that based on what he’s read, he would decline to represent Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer who is now charged with rape after scores of sexual abuse allegations against him sparked the movement. Wood also says he believes the accuser he represented in the Kobe Bryant case was the victim of a crime in an “egregious case.”
But Wood also spends some time on Twitter defending Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who is the subject of sexual assault allegations that were still under investigation at press time. Wood likened the case to his defense of Cain on TV talk shows: “I made the point it’s a slippery slope and I don’t think we want to decide who’s going to govern us based on guilt by accusation.”
More generally in the social media age, Wood said, “The pendulum has swung too far in favor of the First Amendment” and he believes libel laws will be tightened – though not in the way President Trump sometimes calls for. “The change in the libel laws and First Amendment laws … it’s not going to come from legislation. It’s going to come from the court system” and how it interprets the definition of a “public figure” who has less defamation protections, Wood said.
The current laws could make Unsworth’s case against Musk tougher, Wood said, because he gave media interviews criticizing Musk’s proposal for using a miniature submarine for the cave rescue, and thus might be considered a public figure “as if he’s a president or movie star … and I think that’s just wrong.”
The Musk case
In taking on Musk, Wood says he is once again representing a rescue hero — in this case, Unsworth’s knowledge of the Thailand cave system was crucial information for the divers who got the survivors out.
“Vern is as close to Richard Jewell as I’ve seen in my practice,” Wood says. “But for Vernon, I’m not sure that rescue could have happened.”
As for Musk’s comments, Wood says he has seen many defamation cases and, after working with ultra-wealthy clients, is familiar with the “billionaire mentality.” But he says he was still surprised by the novelty of a tycoon issuing a slur while making it clear he had no evidence, then essentially inviting the target to sue.
“I’ve been through enough that it doesn’t shock me. But what Musk did is close to shocking me,” Wood said. “You can’t make this up. There’s no good explanation for what Mr. Musk did.”
Naturally, Wood expects to win the now-filed lawsuit and secure damages in the “tens of millions of dollars.”
“If you got $20 billion,” Wood asks, “how much do you have to pull out of your pocket to learn your lesson?”