AUGUSTA, Ga. - A former Georgia government contractor changed course Tuesday, entering a guilty plea to a single espionage charge. The plea is tied to a case centered around classified documents exposing Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
Reality Leigh Winner, 26, signed off on the plea deal last week, and a federal court accepted the guilty plea on Tuesday morning in Augusta, where she spoke publicly for the first time, telling the court she suffered from depression and an eating disorder.
The terms of the agreement included a 63-month prison sentence, three years of supervised release, no fine and the inability for Winner to profit from telling her story.
Winner initially pleaded not guilty when she was indicted in June 2017. At the time, the Air Force veteran was employed by Pluribus International, a Fort Gordon-based government facility.
On Tuesday, Winner read a prepared statement acknowledging that she knowingly and willingly accessed classified information, took it out of a secured facility and mailed it to The Intercept, an online news outlet that, in turn, asked the FBI to confirm the authenticity of the documents.
Justin Garrick, the FBI agent who led the investigation into Winner’s case, testified during the hearing and repeated the story about Winner’s admission to federal agents last summer. Garrick said Winner told the agents she’d printed the document, folded it in half and stuffed it into her pantyhose before leaving the secure work facility last May.
On the same day, Garrick said, Winner mailed the document to an online media outlet from an Augusta post office.
Judge James Randal Hall will still need to sign off on the terms of the plea agreement, and has ordered an investigative report to review before an unscheduled sentencing.
Winner will return to the Lincoln County jail, where she’s been held without bond since her June 2017 arraignment. It’s unclear whether Hall will consider time served in sentencing, or where the Federal Bureau of Prisons may place Winner.
Neither the prosecution nor defense spoke about the plea change, but Winner’s allies were not aware of her pending decision.
Outside the courtroom, Winner’s mother told Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr that she supported her daughter, but had hopes of fighting the espionage charge through a trial that was scheduled to begin in October.
“Reality Winner, I don’t want her name to go down as a traitor,” Billie Winner-Davis said. “I don’t want her to go down in history as someone who hurt or betrayed her country or that she’s an enemy of the state, and that’s really what the espionage is.”
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