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Judge asked to release grand jury report in Georgia election interference probe

The special grand jury investigating potential criminal interference in the 2020 election by Donald Trump and his allies dissolved earlier this month, but indictments have yet to follow.

ATLANTA (CN) — The judge overseeing the investigation into interference with Georgia's 2020 election results heard arguments Tuesday from the district attorney's office and news outlets over whether the grand jury's final report should be released to the public.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said the 23 members of the special grand jury requested for their final report to be published. It is expected to contain a summary of their findings and possible recommendations for indictments.

A coalition of several news media organizations, including CNN, The New York Times and The Associated Press, filed a motion requesting that the report be made public.

“The public interest in the report is extraordinary, and there are no countervailing interests sufficient to overcome the presumption,” the coalition wrote in a pre-hearing filing.

The grand jury dissolved two weeks ago, nearly one year after it was approved to be seated at the request of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

Willis told McBurney on Tuesday that releasing the final report is "not appropriate at this time," saying it could potentially impact future defendants' rights to a fair trial.

"In this case, the state understands the media's inquiry and the world's interest, but we have to be mindful of protecting future defendants' rights," the prosecutor said.

Donald Wakeford, Fulton County's chief senior district attorney, told the judge that they support the report being released, but not until after Willis has stated whether she will be pursuing charges based on the special grand jury's findings. He argued that the content of the report should be what drives the decision-making process and that the report is still part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

But attorney Tom Clyde, representing the media coalition, argued that the grand jury report should be treated like a court record and made available to the public.

"There hasn't been any suggestive evidence or any presentation that really makes a compelling demonstration that there should be a sealing in this case," Clyde said.

McBurney noted there have been very few cases involving special grand juries in Georgia, and although some of those final reports were published, it doesn't automatically mean that this one should be as well. The judge expressed concern about the jurors and witnesses disclosing information on their own, as they are only required to keep court deliberations secret. He explained that even if he were to file an order asking them to refrain from commenting publicly about the special grand jury, they would likely appeal and succeed in arguing it violated their freedom of speech.

Willis launched the investigation into an alleged election interference scheme by Donald Trump and his allies days after the January 2021 release of a recorded phone call the then-president made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, urging him to "find" 11,789 votes needed to overturn his loss to Joe Biden in the state.

Raffensperger and 74 other witnesses were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, including Trump's former attorneys and top advisers, state Republican officials and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who was repeatedly attacked publicly by Trump for refusing to overturn the state's election results.

According to court documents and attorney statements, at least 18 people have been notified they are targets of the investigation, including Rudy Giuliani, who was Trump's attorney at the time, for allegedly purporting evidence of election fraud to Georgia legislators in December 2020.

Other known targets include David Shafer, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, and the 11 fake GOP electors that he helped enlist to falsely certify that Trump had won the vote in several states that he had actually lost.

Despite a statewide recount that confirmed Biden's victory, Trump and his legal counsel also filed multiple lawsuits contesting Georgia's election results, all of which have since been dropped or dismissed.

Findings in the House Jan. 6 committee's recently released report indicate that former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who reportedly traveled to Georgia to pressure election officials, and John Eastman, who solicited state officials and organized the fake elector scheme, are the most likely to face charges.

While Trump has called the probe a "witch hunt," Willis’s office has not said whether the former president is a “target," and he has not been subpoenaed to testify or appear voluntarily.

Drew Findling, an Atlanta-based attorney who was retained by Trump last summer to represent him, did not participate in Tuesday's hearing. He said in a statement Monday evening there were no violations of the law by Trump.

It will be ultimately up to Willis to decide whether to pursue charges. If she does, her case will be presented to a regular grand jury, which has the power to issue criminal indictments.

Potential felony charges include conspiracy to commit election fraud, violation of oath by a public officer, interference with primaries and elections, and interference with performance of election duties, while possible misdemeanors include making false statements and destroying, defacing or removing ballots.

In court filings, Willis has described the probe as an examination of “multi-state, coordinated efforts to influence the results of the November 2020 elections in Georgia and elsewhere," implying that she is likely to use Georgia’s RICO Act to prosecute the case. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act has been used in the state to target criminal enterprises engaged in various patterns of criminal conduct.

McBurney did not signal when he intends to make a decision, but said he will weigh each group's arguments and contact them with any further questions. If he decides the report should be disclosed, he said that he will issue an order stating his decision and a date for when it will be released.

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