AUGUSTA, Ga. - A federal judge Friday held off a bond decision in the case of Georgia government contractor and alleged NSA leaker Reality Winner.
The move came after more than five hours of evidence presentation and testimony from an FBI agent and Winner’s family, including her mother and sister. New evidence was presented to the court, but much of it was done behind closed doors in a two-hour session where both sides discussed classified information.
Judge Brian Epps said he needed “further reflection and legal research" to make a decision in Winner’s second bond hearing, an emergency request filed by the 25-year-old’s defense earlier this month.
“I will issue a formal, legal ruling as soon as possible,“ said Epps, noting the delay isn’t common. Epps expects to make the ruling sometime next week.
Outside the August Federal Justice Center, Winner loaded back into a transport jail and headed to the Lincoln County jail, flashing a huge smile. It was much different behavior from when cameras awaited her transport in June, following her first bond denial. At that time, she kept her head lowered as she walked out of the courtroom, flanked by U.S. Marshals.
Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Nicole Carr asked one of Winner’s lead defense attorneys whether the decision to delay a bond decision was expected.
“Um, well, I’m not the judge,” Bell answered, before pausing and scratching his head. “There’s been some briefs filed and everything, and if I was the judge I’d probably want to read those.”
Jennifer Solari, the U.S. prosecutor who has led the espionage charge against Winner, declined to comment on the courthouse steps Friday.
“I’m sorry. I can’t do it,” she told reporters. “I appreciate the opportunity.”
But Winner’s mother, who has taken an early retirement and relocated to Georgia, was in good spirits walking alongside her eldest daughter and son-in-law.
“We’re hoping for the best,” Billie Winner-Davis said.
NEW ARGUMENTS IN BOND FIGHT
In motions filed over the past two weeks, the defense has argued Winner is facing unprecedented, unfair treatment, citing other espionage suspects who were granted pretrial bond, including ex-CIA director and retired Army Four-Star General David Petraeus. They also cited a prosecutor’s apology for misrepresenting a jailhouse call between Winner and her mother.
On Wednesday night, the government shot back with a motion releasing interrogation, jailhouse calls and Facebook message transcripts between Winner and her sister. They’ve argued Winner has a wealth of national security knowledge, and remains a flight-risk, despite the government having already confiscated her passport.
FBI AGENT TESTIFIES
On Friday, an FBI agent testified Winner had been in trouble at Pluribus International Corp. before the leak that landed her the charge. According to Special Agent Justin Garrick, Winner was retrained on document procedures after mishandling sensitive government material back in February. It was shortly after she was hired as a contractor by the Fort Gordon-based defense agency, and about three months before she’s accused of mailing an online media outlet a top-secret document. It was printed at work.
“So she may have been intending to see what the result would be,” said WSB-TV Legal Analyst Esther Panitch, referring to the initial incident. “For the defense, they may be saying ‘Well she may not have realized what she’s doing is so bad, 'cause she’d already done it before and they gave her a second chance.”
Garrick, who was among the agents questioning Winner in her home prior to her June arrest, said it’s unclear what access Winner had to more classified information. He referred back to a thumb drive she’d stuck in a classified computer prior to her separation from the Air Force.
That thumb drive, Garrick said, is still missing.
Garrick also testified that Winner had utilized email burner accounts, generally used to access the dark web. It was a part of what the government believes to be telling internet searches found on her personal computers during a June raid.
“It appears it’s a covert communications package,” Garrick testified.
Winner’s defense argued there’s no telling how many people access these self-destructing email accounts to attain a level of privacy.
WINNER’S FAMILY TESTIFIES AGAIN
For the first time, Winner’s older sister, Dr. Brittany Winner testified, defending her sister’s private Facebook message threads, including one claiming hate for America, and support for Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
“It’s a common debate,” Brittany Winner said, referencing the whistleblower debate. “There are a lot of people who think it’s a good thing, (and many) who think it’s bad.”
Brittany Winner is the older of the sisters by 15 months. Her blond hair and acute facial features mirror Reality Winner’s. The close siblings locked eyes several times during Brittany’s testimony. Much of that testimony was centered around the government’s evidence of their Facebook direct messages.
“We’re kind of weird,” she said, describing her and her sister’s sense of humor. “We have a lot of inside jokes.”
Titus Nichols, a defense attorney for Winner, asked her sister whether she thought Winner really meant she wanted “to burn the White House down,” a scribble federal agents found in handwritten notes when they raided Winner’s home.
“Of course not,” Brittany Winner answered, adding her sister was caring, loved the environment and learning about languages and religions.
The elder sister took a short recess from court to review another transcript from a jailhouse phone call between her and Winner, where the contractor asked her sister “what’s going to be on the other side” of her espionage case.
When her sister offered encouraging words that life would move on for Winner, her sister replied over the phone, “I don’t want the rest of my if it’s not what I have."
The government also pulled from a direct message where Winner told her sister about a polygraph test she needed to take at work to ensure she’d never plotted against the U.S. government.
#Gonnafail was a part of her response, according to transcripts.
Billie Winner-Davis returned to Augusta from Texas on Saturday to move into her daughter’s home and see her through the trial. She’s taken an early retirement.
“I need to be here for my daughter,” Davis told the court.
Davis said she and her husband, Gary, are willing to put up their Texas property as bond should the court grant one to Reality. She also explained her vegan daughter was having health issues related to a poor jailhouse diet.
“I am very concerned about her nutrition,” Davis said, noting Winner’s digestive and skin issues since being incarcerated.
Prosecutors said they had a copy of mail Winner sent from the Jefferson County jail that described her meals as “dope.” Garrick testified jail staffers are making special trips to the grocery for Winner.
A GOVERNMENT APOLOGY
On Friday, the government’s lead prosecutor, Jennifer Solari, apologized numerous times for misrepresenting a jail call between Winner and her mother shortly after the contractor’s arrest.
During the June bond hearing, Solari suggested Winner asked her mother to transfer $30,000 out her bank account in order to qualify for free legal assistance, and perhaps got that type of money due to an exchange of government secrets.
A transcript shows it was one of Winner’s cellmates speaking in the background of a phone call who told Davis she needed to transfer her daughter’s money because the government may freeze her accounts.
The money was transferred, and Davis testified it's been used to pay Winner’s bills, including rent, a credit card and a car note.
“I apologize to you for that,” Solari told Davis prior to the mother’s testimony. “That (misrepresentation to the courts) is certainly not my intent.”
Panitch called the initial representation of the call “a cheap shot” on behalf of prosecutors to suggest Winner may have gotten a lump sum of money in exchange for classified material, versus saving her funds and living below her means, as her mother testified.
“Context is everything,” said Panitch. “And in this case, the tone certainly tends to be neutral after the government has admitted mistakes that it represented to the court.”
The court still is working out an amended schedule and a trial date. It was originally slated to begin in October, but the volume of classified material, and working to get new members of the defense team the security clearance needed for the case, makes spring 2018 more likely.
In the meantime, Winner’s case serves as a centerpiece in a national security debate, and the current Administration’s stance on leaks.
“I expect that if she’s detained then the next person arrested under the same set of circumstances will also be detained,” said Panitch. “So this case, even though it’s one case in a smaller district in Georgia, (it) carries a lot of weight nationally.”
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