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NSA Leaker Asks 11th Circuit Panel to Grant Early Release

ATLANTA (CN) — Attorneys for Reality Winner asked an 11th Circuit panel Tuesday to reverse an order denying her request for compassionate release from a Texas prison, where she is serving a five-year sentence for leaking classified information while working for a National Security Agency contractor.  

Claiming she is immunocompromised due to an eating disorder and vulnerable to contracting Covid-19, Winner, 28, asked for early release under the First Step Act in April from the Fort Worth medical prison where she is currently housed.

Chief U.S. District Judge Randal Hall denied Winner’s request without a hearing, finding that her motion for compassionate release was premature because she failed to give her prison warden the required time to consider her request. Hall also ruled that Winner failed to show “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for a reduction in her sentence. 

It became clear during Tuesday’s hearing that the decision to release Winner hinges on the Atlanta-based appeals court’s interpretation of administrative rules which balance the powers of courts and the federal Bureau of Prisons. 

Arguing on Winner’s behalf, Baruch Weiss of Arnold & Porter told the three-judge 11th Circuit panel that his client exhausted her administrative rights with the Bureau of Prisons before taking her motion to federal court. 

Winner submitted a written request for release to the warden of FMC Carswell, a federal medical prison for women in Fort Worth, on April 8 but filed her motion in federal court only two days later. Hall ruled that Winner failed to give her prison warden 30 days to review her request before taking the issue to the courts. 

Weiss argued Tuesday that even if Winner’s request was premature when it was before the district court, more than 30 days have elapsed since the April ruling. 

“The statutory requirement for exhaustion of remedies has been met and the court can act,” he said. “Because the district court had jurisdiction and now this court has jurisdiction and the 30 days is up, my view is we don’t have to decide whether the district court was right or wrong in dismissing versus holding [the motion] until the end of the 30 days.” 

Weiss also told the panel that it had “equitable discretion” to take action due to the unusual circumstances posed by the pandemic. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Davids asked the judges to uphold Hall’s decision, arguing that a ruling in Winner’s favor would go against Congress’ “desire to provide limited exceptions to otherwise final judgments.” He also argued that leaving compassionate release requests in the hands of the Bureau of Prisons “promotes consistency.” 

Winner pleaded guilty in June 2018 to one count of transmitting national security information for leaking a top-secret report analyzing Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election to The Intercept. She admitted to smuggling the documents out of Pluribus International at Fort Gordon, where she worked.  

She was sentenced to 63 months in prison after becoming the first government contractor to be criminally charged under the federal Espionage Act during the Trump administration. 

If she is not granted compassionate release, Winner is expected to be released from prison on Nov. 23, 2021. 

Tuesday’s panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin, a Barack Obama appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judges Robert Luck and Andrew Brasher, both appointees of Donald Trump. The judges did not indicate when they will reach a decision in the case. 

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Categories / Appeals, Criminal, Government, Health

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