L. Lin Wood Fact-Checks the Media

Why the “attorney for the damned” is not a presidential spokesman

Published in 2006 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2006

Atlanta is home to both CNN founder Ted Turner, the father of the 24/7 news cycle, and L. Lin Wood, the lawyer who has built a national reputation around taming the relentless beast spawned by that cycle. The two men have a lot in common: They both are controversial and brash, possess outsized egos and are not afraid to enter uncharted territory.
 
But while Turner has been called “the mouth of the South,” because of his habit of making outrageous off-the-cuff remarks, Wood is a shrewder, smoother talker. He is the go-to guy when your reputation has been ravaged, an aggressive lawyer who can make the media eat its words and then turn around and deftly feed carefully crafted sound bites to a live, national audience. John and Patsy Ramsey, Gary Condit and the accuser in the Kobe Bryant rape case are among Wood’s recent clients.
 
Wood is late for our interview, and his secretary, Sharon Watters, enters the conference room to apologize for her absent boss. “Lin will be here soon,” she says. She sets a shiny blue mug of coffee on the table for the visitor and leaves the room.
 
The only sound is the hissing of radiators. A gold clock engraved with “2002 Atlanta Bulls Champions,” a trophy from Wood’s baseball league, marks the time.
 
Did the “attorney for the damned,” as CBS’s Dan Rather branded Wood, get stuck in Atlanta’s hellish traffic? 
 
When Wood arrives, he does not have the aura of a man running behind schedule. He exudes the confidence of a newscaster about to go on the air as he sits at the head of the conference table: a handsome 53-year-old in a crisp blue suit, every hair in place and skin so smooth it seems airbrushed.
 
This isn’t a guy who needs a warm-up question. Wood has countless interviews under his belt, including appearances on Larry King Live, the Today show and 60 Minutes. Few topics are taboo; he has told his own story many times, along with those of his clients.
 
Still, it’s eerie when Wood affixes his interviewer with his intense green eyes and calmly relates how he came home at age 16 one evening to discover that his father had killed his mother.
 
“I wasn’t surprised. I grew up in a life of domestic abuse. It was a brutal life,” he says of his childhood in Macon, Ga. Both of his parents were troubled alcoholics who were frequently violent toward one another.
 
Wood says he checked his mother’s pulse and, realizing she was dead, called the police.
 
“I remember walking down the driveway and driving off in my mother’s car,” Wood says. “I was going to stay with a friend, but first I stopped in the park and kind of had a little heart-to-heart with myself. I said, ‘You’re in charge of your life now. You’ve got to do something with it.’ That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t affected by it emotionally. I just knew that I had a horrible situation and I had to deal with it. I’ve been fairly independent ever since.”
 
Wood and his sister, who is two years older, were known for their academic achievements despite their tragic home life. The community raised money, and Wood hired attorneys Hank O’Neal and Manley F. Brown. “I know they agreed to represent my dad for a much lower fee because of a desire to help my sister and myself,” Wood says. “Somebody stepping in to help me like that was a great comfort, and I try to remember that when I help my clients.”
 
Wood’s father pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and served two years. Meanwhile, Wood continued on through high school, Mercer University and Mercer Law School. He supported himself by working at a men’s clothing store, as a sports writer at the Macon News and as a hospital orderly.
 
Graduating from law school was a remarkable accomplishment, considering the circumstances, but Wood acknowledged the demons within him. “I left a lot of bodies on the side of the road during my first marriage,” Wood says. “I haven’t been an angel.” Wood has been married to his fourth wife, Debby, for 18 years.
 
“I have been able to raise four kids successfully. So far, so good,” he says. “I actually made a decision not to live my life in the fashion I was raised. I was determined to never have a child live in an environment like that.”
 
In 1983, Wood set up shop in Atlanta with attorney Jack Moore. Wayne Grant later came on board. “Those first couple of years were tough,” Wood recalls. “We lived on borrowed money and borrowed time.”
 
Wood finds it a disturbing trend that many talented young lawyers begin their careers with large firms. “They get used to a lot of money,” he says. “It’s not easy to decide between a steady paycheck and no paycheck at all. You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself, and I don’t lack that. I always tried to select cases because I felt the client was worthy of my time, effort and emotion. I wanted to have a cause that I believed in.”
 
In the summer of 1996, Wood found a cause that brought all of his talents to bear.
 
Richard Jewell, a security guard working during festivities at Olympic Centennial Park, was heralded as a hero for spotting a large green knapsack on a bench and evacuating the area before the knapsack exploded. But when law enforcement started investigating Jewell as a suspect for planting the bomb, his hero status dissolved amid a media frenzy. Wood took on Jewell as a client.
 
Wood launched his own media offensive to try to restore Jewell’s reputation, appearing on 60 Minutes with him. During the interview with Mike Wallace, Wood announced that he would file a libel suit against NBC and broadcaster Tom Brokaw over coverage in the wake of the bombing. Brokaw appeared on CBS to answer the charges.
 
From that moment on, pitting the media against other media to bolster a client’s case became Wood’s modus operandi.
 
“I like being on TV because I find it to be a professional challenge,” Wood says. “My clients are on the hot seat, so I’m on the hot seat. You’ve got to think on your feet. A media appearance is really a mini-trial. You may be advocating to a jury of millions.”
 
Editor & Publisher magazine called the reported $500,000 settlement with NBC and Brokaw the highest-known settlement against the media. CNN also settled for an undisclosed amount over the Olympic bombing coverage, and Time magazine ran a clarification.
 
Although Wood’s media performances are controlled and levelheaded, his courtroom style is combative and explosive. Attorneys who have faced him have called him a bully. Ted Pound, a medical malpractice lawyer, described Wood to the Atlanta Business Chronicle: “He’s the all-time cheap-shot artist in my line of work. That’s his reputation.”
 
Wood concedes he has sometimes pushed the envelope too far. “My biggest mistake would probably be in my earlier days, when I would have been accused of being overly aggressive, to the point of being unprofessional,” he says.
 
“Lin has always been a volcano,” Grant says. “He thrives on conflict. Going head-on with him as a litigator is like pouring gasoline on a fire. He’s going to get his back up and come at you, and he’ll be armed with great knowledge and skill. Lin becomes personally involved in many of his cases, in terms of his emotions. That gives him an extra degree of fervor and passion that causes him to push the envelope.”
 
During a deposition in Jewell’s case against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I was literally on the verge of a fist fight” with one of the AJC’s lawyers, Wood recalls. “And it would not have been a fair fight.” Wood says he also went over the line in some of his comments. “That was manipulated to the benefit of the AJC and to the detriment of Richard Jewell,” Wood says. “They utilized my aggressiveness in a way that undercut his credibility. The last thing you want is people to think that your lawyer is a ranting, raving maniac.”
 
The case is still pending nearly 10 years after it was filed. Jewell, whom Wood considers a friend as well as a client, has since married and now works as a sheriff's deputy in northern Georgia. The senior management at the newspaper has changed and the lead reporter on the Olympic bombing stories has passed away. In 2005, Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing and was sentenced to life in prison.
 
“When you sue an entity that buys ink by the gallon, you’d better be willing to put in a lot of hours and do a lot of paperwork before it’s resolved,” Wood says. “When I took on the case, I didn’t know a lot about First Amendment law. You don’t spend much time in law school studying defamation and slander. I can at least confidently say I know a lot more about it now.”
 
Wood believes that because judges rarely see libel cases, and powerful media companies are armed with teams of lawyers and insurance money, the legal system lacks accountability for individuals who suffer from false attacks on their reputation.
 
“There is this idea that if someone is able to successfully prosecute a case against the media, the sky will fall, life will cease to exist as we know it and the media will not be able to inform us. It’s just bunk,” Wood says.
 
Some argue that Wood has actually helped improve journalism.
 
“I have tremendous respect for his work,” says Robert Richards, co-founder of the Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University. “What he’s done has helped the media strive for a higher standard and let them know in no uncertain terms that if they deviate from what should be a fair and reasonable practice of journalism that he will go after them with great zeal.”
 
“The law is so heavily stacked in favor of the media defendant, it is practically impossible to get a case past a motion,” Wood says. “You’re probably going to get thrown out of court on a summary judgment. You’ve only got a 5 percent chance of getting it to a jury. And then there’s a 50 percent chance it will get reversed or remanded. Your expenses can be hundreds of thousands of dollars or greater. So you don’t see a lot of cases in the courts. You can’t find lawyers willing to take them on.”
 
Wood won three settlements from supermarket tabloids for John and Patsy Ramsey who were upset by stories linking their son to the murder of their daughter, JonBenet. Time, Court TV, St. Martin’s Press and the New York Post also settled in cases brought by the couple, and Wood successfully represented the Ramseys in a libel case filed against them following the publication of their book, The Death of Innocence.
 
Meanwhile, Wood made extensive media appearances to publicize the emergence of new DNA evidence in the JonBenet case, evidence that he says will one day lead to the capture of the killer and definitively clear the family’s name.
 
The attorney for Kobe Bryant’s accuser brought in Wood to help with the criminal and civil litigation in that case, citing concerns over media coverage and the accuser’s privacy.
 
On the behalf of Gary Condit, Wood won a settlement against Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne, over remarks he made linking the former congressman to the death of Chandra Levy. American Media, publisher of National Enquirer, The Globe and The Star, also settled with Condit.
 
All of the settlements are for undisclosed amounts.
 
Wood “is very good at using the court of public opinion by using the media selectively,” says Richards. “When he gets out there [on TV], he’s so persuasive, the media side is looking at this and saying, ‘If he is this good for three minutes on the Today show, can you imagine what he’s going to be like before a jury for three days?’ He’s been very successful in gaining settlements for his clients without ever having to go in and try a case before a jury.”
 
If the AJC case goes to trial, it could become the first time Wood’s skill as a libel lawyer is tested before a jury.
 
“Anyone who has worked with Lin has to come away with the belief that there is no case that cannot be won,” says D. Brandon Hornsby, an Atlanta attorney who worked with Wood for about a year before starting a solo practice. “So many of the greatest developments in our legal system came from that same philosophy, but today you rarely see that in lawyers. Lawyers oftentimes are afraid to get their hands dirty and fight in the trenches, and Lin never shies away from that. He has a unique combination of fearlessness, genius and attention to detail.”
 
Wood attributes much of his success to his ability to choose the right clients and the right cases.
 
“I would not like to represent a client who is guilty,” he says. “I have a good eye for determining clients who are worthy. In large part it’s instinctual. I concede that it’s an inexact science.”
 
He turns down many offers, he says. “I’ve had a number of high-profile individuals that have come to me with the idea of bringing lawsuits for defamation where I’ve felt their motives were more to tie themselves to my reputation of representing the victims, or ‘the damned,’ and to try to manipulate it. I’m not in the business of doing that.”
 
Although he built his early career on medical malpractice cases, Wood says he now devotes 50 percent of his time to civil litigation and the rest to First Amendment cases. He is lead defense counsel for Griffin Industries in a class action pending in Atlanta over environmental issues. In January he left his own practice to join Powell Goldstein.
 
Asked what other career he would have chosen if he hadn’t been a lawyer, Wood says: “I would have made a great politician. But it’s too late now. I’ve got so many skeletons in my closet. That probably disqualifies me.”
 
He says he would also enjoy being “the power behind the throne,” a political adviser who develops strategy.
 
How about a presidential spokesman?
 
“That’s a job I would take,” Wood says. “I’d do it without spinning. The first rule should be, answer the question directly. How many times do you see that done? People in government and otherwise have lost confidence in the truth, plain talk. You should be prepared for the toughest question, address it directly and address it honestly, even if it’s to say, ‘None of your business.’”
 
He pauses and then adds, “I might not last long in that job.”

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