No Early Release For Reality Winner Over COVID-19 Fears

By Craig Clough
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Law360 (April 24, 2020, 10:41 PM EDT) -- A George federal judge shot down former defense contractor Reality Winner's bid for early release over concerns about her health amid a prison lockdown imposed to contain COVID-19, saying she had not exhausted her legal options before filing the motion and would not be granted release even if she had.

U.S. District Judge J. Randal Hall said Winner's argument to the court for early release under the First Step Act was "premature" because she is required to first petition the director of the Bureau of Prisons and not file a motion with the court for at least 30 days.

But should Winner exhaust that option, the judge made it clear that he did not find her a candidate for release from custody at FMC Carswell in Texas.

"Winner has not carried the burden of demonstrating that her specific medical conditions under the particular conditions of confinement at FMC Carswell place her at a risk substantial enough to justify early release," the judge said. "In fact, the court is constrained to observe that Winner is in a medical prison, which is presumably better equipped than most to deal with any onset of COVID-19 in its inmates."

Winner is serving a sentence of more than five years after having pled guilty to illegally leaking a report on Russian interference in U.S. elections. On April 10, she asked for early release so she can avoid adverse consequences of the pandemic sweeping through federal prisons. She is due to be released in November 2021.

In the motion, Winner's attorneys cited a "propensity for respiratory illnesses" and the potential for a partial lockdown to exacerbate her bulimia nervosa. They also expressed concern that being confined to her cell would prevent her from using exercise as a coping mechanism for her eating disorder.

The federal government in a motion filed earlier this week argued that Winner had not fulfilled the requirement under the First Step Act to first petition the BOP for release and then wait 30 days before taking the claim to court. They stated the BOP is best positioned to evaluate prisoners for release to home confinement.

The judge agreed and rejected Winner's argument that the First Step Act gave the judge the same authority as the director of the BOP to determine "extraordinary and compelling" reasons for the release.

The judge also cited some recent district court rulings, including U.S.A v. Gileno, where it was found that there was no evidence suggesting the Bureau of Prisons is ill-equipped to deal with COVID-19.

"In short, even if the court had discretion in this matter, Winner has not demonstrated an extraordinary and compelling reason to reduce her sentence," the judge said.

Winner is serving a 63-month sentence after pleading guilty to disclosing a top-secret report to an online news organization while working as a linguist for Pluribus International Corp., a contractor for the National Security Agency.

Although the government has refrained from identifying the recipient of the classified information or detailing the contents of the document, The Intercept has released statements indicating that Winner was arrested for disclosing a report that formed the basis of a story it published detailing intelligence community reports of a Russian hacking operation targeting U.S. voting systems.

The government is represented by Jennifer G. Solari and Justin G. Davids of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Georgia.

Winner is represented by Joe D. Whitley, Matthew Chester and Thomas Barnard of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.

The case is U.S. v. Winner, case number 1:17-cr-00034, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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