Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said Tuesday that “decisions are imminent” in an investigation into potential illegal interference by former President Donald Trump and his allies in the 2020 presidential election.
Willis’ comments regarding the timing of the case were made during a hearing where prosecutors asked Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney to delay public disclosure of a special grand jury’s report that makes recommendations on whether to pursue criminal charges against anyone involved in attempts to overturn the 2020 election. McBurney said he will decide in the coming days whether to publicly release the jury’s report. In Tuesday’s hearing, the judge heard arguments from the district attorney’s office and attorneys representing several media organizations.
Willis on Tuesday said she understands the media’s interest in the case, but she wants to protect the rights of potential future defendants while prosecution decisions are pending.
“What the state does not want to see happen, and I don’t think that there’s any way that the court would be able to guarantee, is that if the report was released there somehow could be arguments made that it impacts the right for later individuals, multiple (people) to get a fair trial, to have a fair hearing to be able to be tried in this jurisdiction,” Willis said.
The special grand jury submitted a report this month after hearing from 75 witnesses dating back to last summer in the high-profile case that included testimony from reluctant witnesses like Trump’s ex-chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump’s former personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Willis’ investigation was boosted by the January 2021 public release of a recorded phone call in which Trump pressed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough ballots to overcome Biden’s victory.
At Willis’ request, Fulton’s circuit court judges appointed the special grand jury that operates under some different rules than a regular grand jury.
Special investigative grand juries can meet for as long as a year and recommend to the district attorney whether any crimes might have been committed based on the evidence. But unlike a regular grand jury, the special panels cannot render criminal indictments.
An attorney for the media organizations, Tom Clyde, said the jury’s report should be released in its entirety now and that approach is consistent with how the American judicial system works. He argued that the veil of secrecy that the special grand jury operated under while hearing from witnesses should not hold true for a final report that’s of enormous interest to the public.
“It is not unusual for a district attorney or prosecuting authority to be generally uncomfortable with having to release information during the progress of a case,” Clyde said. “But the judicial system time and time again has said when matters are brought into the court system we are going to require them to be made public because the faith of the public and the court system is much improved by operating in a public way.”
McBurney repeatedly questioned why the Fulton report should remain confidential when a similar report from a federal investigation was publicly released. Some of the same witnesses in that case appeared in the Fulton courtroom behind closed doors since last summer when the special grand jury started hearing from witnesses.
McBurney said that the publicity from the U.S. House Jan. 6th committee’s hearings that were broadcast on national TV haven’t appeared to rush the Justice Department into making rash decisions.
“If an argument the district attorney’s office is making may be post-indictment it makes all the sense in the world to disclose the report but before then you’re hamstringing the investigation and maybe putting inordinate pressure on someone to get these things,” McBurney said. “But that doesn’t seem to have made the wheels fall off the DOJ bus.”
Donald Wakeford, a special prosecutor who advised the jurors, said that it is uncertain how the testimony that played out publicly before Congress will affect the federal investigation because the DOJ operates in such secrecy and its grand jury proceedings are subject to much stricter requirements.
“This is not an opposition that is intended to march until the end of time and prevent public disclosure from what is in this report forever,” he said. “It is simply saying ‘now is not that time.’”
Clyde, however, dismissed the prosecutors’ argument that sealing the report for an undetermined period would protect potential targets’ rights. Besides, Clyde, pointed out that court documents are publicly disclosed even before indictments are handed down.
The Georgia law restricting court file access supports the media’s desire to get the information out, he said.
Clyde argued that the final report should have been considered public record once it was submitted to McBurney.
“The question is not whether it is submitted to a (court) clerk, the question is whether it is submitted to a judicial officer that needs to take action,” he said.
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