ATLANTA – Despite the announcement on July 7 that charges would be dropped against Mark Thomason, the north Georgia newspaper publisher remains under indictment on felony charges for filing an open records request. The order to drop the charges was sent to Senior Court Judge Richard Winegarden who has refused to sign the order, calling instead for a hearing on the order on Monday, July 18.
The Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists urges Judge Winegarden to sign the order dropping these charges against Thomason without further delay.
Thomason, publisher of the Blue Ridge, Ga.-based Fannin Focus, and his attorney were both arrested in June after filing a records request. The request was for checks cashed by a government agency and involved Chief Superior Court Judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit Brenda Weaver. The judge, who by her own admission did not “react well” to criticism from the press, had the District Attorney charge Thomason with three felonies – Identity fraud, attempted identity fraud and making a false statement over his request.
Due to the bond restrictions, Thomason has had to submit to random drug tests and cannot visit the county courthouse, which severely hampers his ability to do his job. The case drew significant media outrage in Georgia and nationally. After being hounded by the media for a week, Weaver asked the District Attorney to drop the charges. The DA issued the order and it was delivered to Winegarden after other judges in the jurisdiction recused themselves.
While we would’ve expected Judge Winegarden to act quickly to sign the order to dismiss the charges, a week later Winegarden has yet to do so. Members of SPJ Georgia called him on Monday and politely asked him to sign the order so Thomason could get back to work. The judge said he was irritated with all of the calls he was receiving. He was irritated that we were asking him to do his job and correct this injustice.
In the interim, Thomason is still having to participate in random drug screens. He still can not set foot in the courthouse. Nothing about his situation has changed except the person wearing the robes.
Now Thomason has a hearing before Judge Winegarden on July 18 at 3 p.m. in Pickens County Superior Court. We are unsure why an additional hearing is needed. The judge can sign the order any time he likes.
It is frustrating that we really have no power to compel Judge Winegarden to act, other than our ability to appeal to his basic sense of decency. It’s a shame that Judge Winegarden is perpetuating this injustice against Thomason by refusing to sign the order dismissing the charges. It’s just a terrible situation all around.
These judges have trampled on one of the fundamental institutions in our democracy, a free and independent press.
While we can do very little today to change Thomason’s situation, we can encourage people to do what they can. There’s currently a Go Fund Me account set up to help him cover his bills and legal expenses. We encourage everyone in Georgia who believes in the First Amendment, including journalists, to contribute so he can continue to cover the community he calls home:
In the meantime, we must be vigilant against any threats to our basic freedoms, including the right to criticize public officials. If Thomason’s case can teach us anything, it’s that we can’t take these rights for granted.