County BOE board member, Atmore newspaper reporter arrested by ECSO
Published 9:25 pm Friday, October 27, 2023
UPDATE: The following story was updated today to include additional information on the arrests of Escambia County Board of Education District 6 Board Member Sherry Digmon and Atmore News Reporter Don Fletcher. The update also includes clarification on their charges, and comments from District Attorney Stephen Billy.
An Escambia County Board of Education board member and an Atmore newspaper reporter were arrested Oct. 27 for publishing grand jury evidence, according to officials.
District 6 Board Member Sherry Digmon, 72, and Don Fletcher, 69, both of Atmore, were booked into the county detention center in Brewton at 5:33 and 6:04 p.m. Friday, respectively, according to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office jail report.
Digmon is also the co-owner and publisher of the Atmore News. Fletcher is a reporter with the Atmore News.
Both were released earlier in the evening.
Escambia County District Attorney Stephen Billy said Saturday both Digmon and Fletcher were arrested for breaking the law, for publishing jury information that’s secret by statute.
“It’s not allowed,” Billy said. “All three of them, (including) the girl that was expelled, were all charged with the same thing. But, you just can’t do that, and there’s no reason for that. Innocent people get exposed, and it causes a lot of trouble for people.”
Billy said the arrest stems from the publishing of an article, which was in the Atmore News where a subpoena and COVID checks were mentioned, and “even called out some names.” The article was published in the Wed., Oct. 25, edition.
“They also mentioned – and I was at the school board meeting on the (Oct.) 12th, and they said I mentioned that (subpoena and COVID checks) at at the school board meeting, which is not correct at all,” he said. “I didn’t mention anything about COVID at all. That was just misinformation. They were at the meeting. That was, I think, calculated.”
During the meeting Billy was referring, the district attorney spoke in defense of Superintendent Michele McClung, whose contract was not renewed by the board.
When asked if there are any future arrests that will occur, Billy said he couldn’t comment.
“All I can say is that this has been an ongoing investigation,” Billy said. “This was way before the school board vote (to non-renew McClung’s contract). Regardless of how the vote went, the investigation would’ve happened anyway.
“Another thing I wanted to clear up is they keep (saying) this was initiated by Ms. McClung, and that is totally not true,” he said. “This was initiated by employees and basically a couple of members of the community. This was no initiated by the superintendent. She’s getting a lot of blow back from it, and that’s not what she deserves.”
Billy said he can’t reveal who the members of the community or employees are who initiated the investigation.
“That probably will come out in time,” Billy said. “If it goes further to that point. It’s a shame for people to do the right thing, they usually get all of the blow back.”
Billy said he can’t comment on whether the publishing of the information in the Atmore News or the arrests will impact the grand jury’s decision.
Because both were arrested on a warrant Friday, both will appear before a judge Monday (Oct. 30) afternoon, Billy said.
This will serve as the initial appearance before a judge, and both are entitled to a preliminary hearing, Billy said.
“If they chose that, they have to request that within 30 days of the arrest,” he said. “From the preliminary hearing, then it goes to a grand jury if the judge finds a probable cause.”
When asked if both could be sued for libel, Billy said he believes one could open themselves up for liability. Libel is a published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation.
“I think it’s reckless to put that kind of information in name, and base it as the subject of an ongoing investigation,” Billy said.
Billy suggested Alabama State Code Section 12-16-214, which details about grand jury and the desirability of secrecy.
The code by which both were arrested (12-16-215) states: Grand juror, witness, etc., prohibited from revealing, disclosing, etc., a juror’s questions, considerations, etc.; no person to directly, indirectly, etc., by any means obtain information as to juror’s questions, considerations, etc. No past or present grand juror, past or present grand jury witness or grand jury reporter or stenographer shall willfully at any time directly or indirectly, conditionally or unconditionally, by any means whatever, reveal, disclose or divulge or attempt or endeavor to reveal, disclose or divulge or cause to be revealed, disclosed or divulged, any knowledge or information pertaining to any grand juror’s questions, considerations, debates, deliberations, opinions or votes on any case, evidence, or other matter taken within or occurring before any grand jury of this state. Nor shall any person at any time, directly or indirectly, conditionally or unconditionally by any means whatever, corruptly or with intent to influence a grand juror or other person authorized by law to attend a grand jury, or by threat of harm to person or property, or by force applied to person or property, or by threatening letter or communication, or by offer of reward, remuneration, gift, benefit or thing of value of whatever nature or kind, obtain or endeavor to obtain, any information pertaining to, or any knowledge of any grand juror’s questions, considerations, debates, deliberations, opinions or votes on any case, evidence or other matter taken or transpiring within or before any grand jury of this state.
This story will be updated.