Judge orders protection of some evidence in Trump election case

A Fulton County judge Thursday ordered some evidence in the Donald Trump election interference case to be withheld from the public.

The move came after interviews of several witnesses leaked to the media this week. Following the disclosure, District Attorney Fani Willis had sought a sweeping order prohibiting the release of all evidence prosecutors turned over to defense attorneys.

She said the release of evidence could lead to the harassment or intimidation of witnesses or the tainting of the jury pool.

But Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee approved a much narrower order that will require prosecutors to identify material they deem too sensitive to be publicly released. Defendants would have 14 days to challenge the “sensitive” designation.

The judge’s order came a few days after several news outlets – including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – obtained and published excerpts from prosecutors’ videotaped interviews with defendants who have pleaded guilty in the case. The interviews — with Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell, Kenneth Chesebro and Scott Hall — could provide insight into their future testimony as prosecutors pursue charges against the remaining 15 defendants. They were indicted for their alleged roles in trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

On Wednesday a defense attorney admitted he had leaked the videos to one news outlet because he believed the interviews could help his client, former Coffee County election supervisor Misty Hampton.

The leaks prompted Willis to renew her request for a court order prohibiting the release of such material.

Defendants objected to Willis’ broad request to prohibit the release all evidence turned over by prosecutors as required by law. And several news organizations – including the AJC – argued the order was not necessary. They said Willis had not demonstrated a substantial threat of physical or economic harm to particular witnesses, and they argued the evidence is of tremendous public interest.

In Thursday’s order, McAfee ruled some protection of information from public disclosure is needed to promote the “full and unimpeded” sharing of evidence before the trial. He also said potential jurors should be limited from exposure to evidence that ultimately may be inadmissible at trial.

“The court has an interest in ensuring that all parties retain their right to a fair trial before an unbiased jury, a process that could become unattainable should the public be allowed to vet every piece of unfiltered evidence months before trial,” McAfee wrote in the order.

McAfee ordered prosecutors to review evidence already provided to defendants and designate any sensitive materials within 30 days. Prosecutors must inform the defendants why they believe the information is sensitive. They must make similar determinations for any future evidence provided to the defendants.

The defendants will have 14 days to contest the “sensitive” designations. Any evidence ultimately deemed sensitive cannot be filed with the court unless it is sealed.

The order does not prohibit the release of information or records that are publicly available independent of prosecutors’ providing the to the defendants.