The espionage trial of the Augusta woman accused of leaking a classified document has been pushed back.
Although Reality Leigh Winner was not present at the hearing in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, her attorneys – new and old – were there seeking a continuance.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian K. Epps reluctantly agreed to give the defense more time to prepare because Winner’s new attorneys have not yet obtained their national security clearance to enable them to see any classified documents that federal prosecutors may use against her. Epps gave the defense until early November to file defense motions. A trial will be set for early March unless extraordinary circumstances require further delay. A tentative trial date had been set for the week of Oct. 23.
Winner, 25, has pleaded not guilty to a single count of willful retention and transmission of national defense information.
She has been held in jail without bond since her arrest June 3. Winner, who had a top security clearance from her service as a linguist specialist in the Air Force, worked for the National Security Agency contractor Pluribus at Fort Gordon.
To meet the former October trial date, the defense had to file defense motions by Sept. 15. But Winner’s new defense attorneys – Brett Switzer, Jill McCook, Joe Whitley, Matthew Chester and Thomas Barnard – haven’t gotten their national security clearance yet, Chester said. He proposed having a status conference every month or two to advise the judge where the attorneys stood in preparing for trial. Their research of other espionage cases that went to trial took an average of 727 days, Chester said.
That, Epps said, was not going to happen with Winner’s case. He reminded Chester his client is sitting in jail without bond until trial. A client with no criminal history, Epps said. She is entitled to a speedy trial, he said. This case only involves a single defendant, a single criminal count and a short time period of alleged illegal conduct, Epps said.
But Winner is entitled to an adequate defense, too, Chester said. They can’t prepare until they have time to review and study the classified documents in the case, consult with expert witnesses and then file defense motions.
Winner’s original defense attorneys, John Bell and Titus Nichols, have their security clearance now and they can review the classified documents. But they can’t discuss any of the materials with the other lawyers. And no expert can be consulted or given access to the materials until a security clearance is obtained.
Prosecutor Julie Edelstein said Wednesday the defense has been given about 8,000 pages of discovery that is not classified. The classified portion is about 400 pages, she said.
According to court documents, federal agents followed clues to Winner’s doorstep after a classified document was linked to the online publication The Intercept. It was used for a June 5 report about the extent of Russia’s efforts to hack into several states’ voting infrastructure.
The government contends that the leaked document is classified, although the media coverage of the document has been extensive locally and nationally. Russia meddling into last year’s presidential election and possible links to President Trump supporters is also being investigated by House and Senate committees, and a special prosecutor.
The defense filed a motion Tuesday seeking to have Winner’s statement to federal agents suppressed. The document, which also requests a hearing on the matter, was filed under seal.
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