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Business News/ News / Judge in Trump’s Georgia Case to Bar Release of Sensitive Evidence After Media Leaks
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Judge in Trump’s Georgia Case to Bar Release of Sensitive Evidence After Media Leaks

wsj

The move comes after a defense lawyer admitted to disclosing video clips of witness interviews to a media outlet.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee presiding over a recent hearing in Atlanta. Premium
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee presiding over a recent hearing in Atlanta.

ATLANTA—The judge overseeing the racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and 14 remaining co-defendants said he would soon place new limits on how evidence should be handled, after a defense lawyer admitted to disclosing video clips of witness interviews to a media outlet.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said during an unusual court hearing Wednesday afternoon that he would impose a “protective order," which would bar defense lawyers from disclosing certain information they get about the prosecution’s case during discovery.

“Until we decide what is relevant and admissible, this case should be tried not in the court of public opinion as much as possible, but before a jury, with evidence that has been vetted and approved," McAfee said.

McAfee said he would draft the protective order and publish it by Thursday. The judge said his order wouldn’t be a total ban on sharing evidence with the public. The order would only apply to materials designated as sensitive, such as witness interviews and business records. Defendants would have an opportunity to pose objections to the application of the sensitive label, McAfee said in court.

The hearing came after ABC News and the Washington Post earlier this week published video excerpts of meetings between prosecutors and Trump co-defendants who pleaded guilty. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis provided those video clips to defense lawyers in the case so that they could prepare for trial.

Jonathan Miller, a lawyer for Trump co-defendant Misty Hampton, said during the hearing that he disclosed the video clips to one media outlet, without specifying which one. Hampton, a former elections official in Georgia’s Coffee County, has pleaded not guilty to charges including racketeering and conspiracy to commit computer theft.

“In being transparent with the court, and to make sure that nobody else gets blamed for what happened, and so that I can go to sleep well tonight, judge, I did release those videos to one outlet," Miller said. “And, in all candor to the court, I need the court to know that."

Willis’s office requested a protective order in an emergency motion filed on Tuesday, a day after ABC News and the Washington Post published their stories. Willis’s office originally proposed a blanket ban of sharing pretrial discovery with the public, before consenting to a more limited order favored by the majority of the defense lawyers in the case.

Miller, the lawyer who said he had leaked to the media, said “the public has a right to know" about what was said in meetings, known as “proffer sessions," between prosecutors and the four defendants who have pleaded guilty so far: Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, Scott Hall and Kenneth Chesebro.

The video clips revealed new details of what those co-defendants told prosecutors since taking no-jail deals and agreeing to cooperate in Willis’s election interference case.

In one clip, Ellis told prosecutors about a conversation she had with a top Trump aide, Dan Scavino, in December 2020. In that conservation, Scavino said Trump had no intention of leaving the White House after his 2020 election loss, according to Ellis.

“The boss is not going to leave under any circumstances," Scavino allegedly told Ellis. “We are just going to stay in power." Scavino didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.

Tom Clyde, a lawyer for a media coalition led by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, argued Wednesday that the proposed protective order goes against First Amendment protections of public access to court proceedings.

“What the state and the defendants are trying to do is get the authority of the court behind an order that will impose secrecy on information that’s exchanged during the discovery process, notwithstanding how newsworthy that information is," Clyde said.

McAfee was skeptical that discovery evidence, like the videos released this week, carry a presumption of public access.

“The First Amendment concerns of this case are not ones to just be ignored or flippantly denied," McAfee said. “However, pretrial discovery places us, I think, in a very different realm."

Trump and 18 others, including eight lawyers, were charged with participating in a criminal enterprise to subvert President Biden’s victory.

A trial date hasn’t been scheduled. Willis said during a public appearance in Washington on Tuesday that the trial may not conclude until early 2025, after the November 2024 presidential election in which Trump is the likely GOP nominee.

“I believe the trial will take many months," Willis said at the Global Women’s Summit, a Washington Post conference.

Willis said during the event that she was disappointed by the leaks, and that they didn’t come from her office. In a court filing, her office said the disclosures were “clearly intended to intimidate witnesses in this case" and would subject those witnesses to “harassment and threats prior to trial."

Ellis, a former lawyer for the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty last month to one felony count of aiding and abetting false statements and writings.

She was the third former Trump legal adviser to plead guilty, following similar moves by Chesebro and Powell. Hall, a bail-bond business owner, earlier took a deal.

The 15 remaining defendants include Trump, his former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and his former campaign lawyers John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani. They have all pleaded not guilty.

Trump’s lead lawyer in Georgia, Steve Sadow, noted last month that none of the four defendants to have taken deals has pleaded guilty to the racketeering charge at the heart of the case. On Monday, Sadow said the leaked video clips weren’t harmful to his defense.

Write to Mariah Timms at mariah.timms@wsj.com and Jan Wolfe at jan.wolfe@wsj.com

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