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‘Grand jury secrets’

Ruling expected on motions to dismiss charges during Monday hearing

Atmore News Staff

A retired Autauga County Circuit Judge is expected to hear arguments during a Monday, February 26, “status hearing” on whether the case against Atmore News co-owner and publisher Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher — for revealing grand jury secrets — should be dismissed on Constitutional grounds.
Brewton attorneys Earnest White and Cierra White, who are defending Digmon and Fletcher, have filed motions for dismissal of all charges related to the October 27, 2023, arrests of both. Each was handcuffed and taken to the county jail two days after the weekly newspaper published a story about a grand jury investigation into the school system’s handling of federal COVID-19 relief funds.
The seven-page dismissal motions cite several cases in which federal courts have upheld a journalist’s right to publish, even if a story involves confidential information.
Among the cases cited is Landmark Communications Inc. v. Virginia, a 1978 legal battle that resulted in a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional for the state to convict a newspaper publisher of violating a Virginia state law that made it a crime to divulge information of a confidential proceeding.
“In the [Escambia County] case, the State of Alabama is seeking to punish the publication of information relating to alleged governmental misconduct, speech which has traditionally been recognized as lying at the core of the First Amendment,” the filing states. “The article published by Atmore News, like the publisher in Landmark Communications, provided accurate information and, in doing so, clearly served those interests in public scrutiny and discussion of governmental affairs which the First Amendment was adopted to protect.”
Many free-press advocates and attorneys who specialize in Constitutional Law claim DA Steve Billy is pursuing unconstitutional charges aimed at silencing journalists.
Dennis Bailey, an attorney with the Alabama Press Association, apparently follows that same line of thinking. Bailey told Al.com he feels the attorneys for the journalists are correct in their reasoning behind their motions.
“It seems they are making the right arguments, citing the right decisions to support dismissal of the complaint,” he said.
The 9 a.m. hearing will be conducted by Judge Ben Fuller, who was assigned to the cases by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker after Escambia County Circuit Judges Jeff White and Todd Stearns, as well as District Judge Eric Coale, recused themselves from hearing the matter.
Each cited his professional and social relationships to the District Attorney as the reason behind the respective recusals. Each of the three worked as an assistant DA under Billy before becoming a judge.
Also scheduled for a status hearing on Monday is Victoria “Ashley” Fore, a bookkeeper with the county school system who was arrested the same day and charged with the same offense as Digmon, who is also a member of the Escambia County Board of Education, and Fletcher.
About five weeks after the three were arrested, Cindy Jackson, the county school board’s vice-president, was also jailed, also for revealing grand jury secrets. Jackson reportedly has a hearing scheduled for March.
Under Alabama law, revealing grand jury secrets is a felony punishable upon conviction by up to three years in prison.