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DA recusal

No impeachment proceedings, Billy drops out of ‘grand jury secrets’ prosecution

Atmore News Staff

In a flurry of legal activity that occurred last Thursday and Friday (February 22-23), the county’s chief prosecutor not only recused himself from trying the case against two Atmore News journalists for revealing grand jury secrets, but also called a halt to impeachment proceedings he brought against one of them.
District Attorney Steve Billy filed a motion Thursday morning requesting a dismissal of his attempt to have Sherry Digmon — the newspaper’s publisher and co-owner and a member of the Escambia County Board of Education — impeached on ethical and moral grounds, and former 19th Judicial Circuit Judge Ben Fuller granted that motion late Thursday afternoon.
Brewton defense attorney Earnest A. White, who is representing Digmon and Fletcher on all the criminal charges against either, said putting the brakes on the impeachment proceedings was probably Billy’s smartest move.
“The judge did what he needed to do,” said the defense attorney, who is handling the case with his law partner and daughter, Cierra White. “The state did not want to pursue that avenue.”
Fuller granted the motion to call off the impeachment proceedings, ruling “this case is hereby dismissed with prejudice.” A dismissal with prejudice means the case cannot be tried again, at least not in circuit court.
Also late last week, Digmon received notice that she would be arraigned on both remaining charges — revealing evidence to a grand jury and violating her oath of office by disclosing confidential information — at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, March 5. Digmon will be asked to enter a plea to the charges against her.
The retired jurist was appointed by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker to hear the cases against Digmon and Fletcher when judges Jeff White, Todd Stearns and Eric Coale, each of whom worked as an assistant DA under Billy before being elevated to the bench, recused themselves.
In a motion sent by email to Fuller late Wednesday (February 21), the DA said in reference to the charges of revealing grand jury secrets, he “gives notice to the Court of his intent to recuse himself and the Office of the District Attorney from the above referenced case.”
Billy cited two reasons for his recusal: 1) “That the District Attorney has both a legal and a personal conflict,” and (2) that “justice would be best served” by the recusal.
The defense attorney said he barely raised an eyebrow when notified of the DA’s decision.
“I’m not surprised at all,” he said. “I think it was in his best interest to get out of it.”
Charges against the two journalists resulted from an Oct. 25, 2023 article reporting that the DA was investigating “some aspect” of the possible mishandling of federal COVID relief money by county school officials.
The article was based upon unsolicited documents that were furnished to the weekly newspaper. Also arrested was Veronica “Ashley” Fore, the school system’s payroll and insurance bookkeeper, who was tabbed by Billy as the source of the documents leak.
White said the DA filed for a continuance of the status hearing scheduled for Monday, February 26, at which the judge was to have ruled on motions to dismiss the charges against each defendant. According to White, when Fuller refused to rule on the request for a continuance, Billy bailed out of the case, effectively canceling the hearing and further delaying the court proceedings.
Billy’s recusal means Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall will decide who will prosecute the case, or if the case will ever be heard by a jury.
“I believe it’s up to the Attorney General now,” White said. “He will either assign one of the prosecutors from his office to try the case, or he’ll assign a DA from another judicial district to come in here and prosecute it, or he could decide to drop it. Hopefully, he will move the process along and name a person we can start dealing with.”
The move appears to be the DA’s second obvious use of delaying tactics since he had the publisher and reporter arrested on October 27.
Just hours before a scheduled December preliminary hearing for Digmon, who is also still under indictment for alleged ethics violations, and Fletcher, Billy recalled enough grand jury members for a formal indictment of each defendant. That action ended the rights of the journalists to a preliminary hearing.
The ploy came just hours after White had a subpoena served on the former school superintendent, ordering her to testify during the legal proceeding.
Other than a bond hearing before Coale on the original charge, neither Digmon nor Fletcher have been in a courtroom. No date has been set for continuance of the legal proceedings.