Titus Nichols, Bell & Brigham, Augusta, Ga.
Titus Nichols, Bell & Brigham, Augusta, Ga. ()

The 25-year-old government contractor charged with sharing a secret report on Russian interference in the American presidential election has an Augusta criminal defense attorney who is also a judge advocate general in the U.S. Army. That military connection is how Titus Nichols became Reality Winner’s lawyer.

Winner is being held in federal custody charged with sending a news organization a classified National Security Agency document. She’s an Air Force veteran with top-secret security clearance working for a military contractor in Augusta.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian Epps of the Southern District of Georgia appointed Nichols Monday to represent Winner, starting with her first appearance at Augusta’s federal courthouse. With no public defender, the court maintains a list of pre-cleared private attorneys to appoint for criminal defense.

“The judge appointed me because of my military background,” said Nichols, who is currently on reserve duty as a JAG in the Georgia Army National Guard. He said he has experience with what the government calls “spillage”—the leaking of classified information into lower levels of knowledge. He is an associate with the Bell & Brigham firm in Augusta.

Nichols said he grew up in Ohio and Colorado and came to Georgia to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he majored in English. From there, he moved to Athens to attend law school at the University of Georgia.

Nichols also is an experienced prosecutor, first with the Augusta Judicial Circuit solicitor general’s office and then with the district attorney. He spent his first four years of practice prosecuting crimes. For the past two years, he’s worked in private practice, mostly as a personal injury plaintiff’s attorney. But he also maintains a criminal defense practice.

On Tuesday, Nichols brought in a co-counsel, another former prosecutor he knows from the Augusta district attorney’s office, Keith Johnson. Johnson now has his own firm handling criminal defense. Johnson is also a judge in the Augusta Juvenile Court. His name might be familiar to football fans who knew him as a cornerback at Furman University, where he played on scholarship before earning a history degree and moving on to law school at Michigan State University.

The defense team’s strategy, Nichols said, will be to show that the government has no proof that Winner is guilty as charged. To prove its case, he said, the Department of Justice will have to show not only that Winner shared classified information but that it damaged the United States or helped a foreign government.

“From what I’ve seen of the report, it doesn’t do either one,” he said. If anything, he added, the report is damaging to a foreign government because it details Russia’s efforts to hack into U.S. election software.

Nichols spoke on his cellphone Tuesday as he made the one-hour drive from Augusta to Lincolnton to meet with his client in the Lincoln County jail. He said his first order of business is to ask that she be released pending trial–a request he plans to make during her next appearance before the judge on Thursday afternoon.

“She has no criminal record. She’s not at risk of repeating the offense. It’s not like she robbed a 7-11,” he said. “The government took away all her electronic devices when they executed the search warrant on her home. There’s no way she can go down the street and do it again.”

Winner was arrested Saturday, soon after a news outlet contacted the government for comment on the classified report and shared it. The document was folded, indicating it had been printed and carried out of a secure office. Investigators found six people who had printed that report. Only one–Winner–also had email contact with the news organization involved, according to the affidavit documenting the charges. She faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Nichols seemed encouraged after meeting with Winner Tuesday afternoon. On another phone call as he left the jail, he said, “She’s in good spirits. That’s important. We’re trying to stay focused on the law, on helping her and on getting to the truth.”

He said he advised Winner to stay positive and tune out the publicity and the “negativity”–including angry comments on social media.

He said she appeared to be well treated in the rural jailhouse. Her only complaints were about the processed food. “She misses her kale,” he said, noting Winner is a health conscious fitness enthusiast.

“She teaches yoga classes for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Nichols said. “She’s a good person. She’s not a traitor–as she has been made out to be.”

As for the public side of Winner’s defense, Nichols said he is hoping for a hand taking the focus off his client. On the same day Winner is set to return to federal court, fired FBI Director James Comey is scheduled to testify before a Senate panel looking into Russian meddling in the American election.

Said Nichols, “That should help.”

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