U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Alabama reporter faces felony charge for article on grand jury investigation

Incident Details

Date of Incident
October 27, 2023
Location
Atmore, Alabama

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Detention Date
Release Date
Unnecessary use of force?
No

Prior Restraint

Status of Prior Restraint
Pending
Mistakenly Released Materials?
No
Escambia County Sheriff's Office

Atmore News reporter Don Fletcher and publisher Sherry Digmon were arrested on Oct. 27, 2023, and charged with felonies for reporting on an ongoing grand jury investigation in Escambia County, Alabama.

— Escambia County Sheriff's Office
October 30, 2023 - Update

Alabama reporter placed under prior restraint as condition of bail

Atmore News reporter Don Fletcher and publisher Sherry Digmon have been placed under a prior restraint as a condition of bail set on Oct. 30, 2023, according to court records reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

The two were arrested in Atmore, Alabama, on Oct. 27, and each charged with a felony — Fletcher for reporting and Digmon for publishing on an ongoing grand jury investigation related to school board funds.

In the signed orders that followed their initial court appearance, both journalists were directed to have “no communication about ongoing criminal investigations, including school board matter.”

No such order was included in the bail agreement for Veronica “Ashley” Fore — a bookkeeper for the county school system who was charged with leaking grand jury information to the media.

Earnest White, an attorney representing Fletcher and Digmon, told the Tracker he has advised them not to publish any additional grand jury information to ensure that the judge does not revoke their bail.

Freedom of the Press Foundation — which oversees the operation of the Tracker — condemned the arrests of Fletcher and Digmon and called on the district attorney to drop the charges against them.

“The problem is that Alabama’s grand jury secrecy statute prohibits grand jurors, witnesses and others directly involved in grand jury proceedings from disclosing information about a grand jury,” the press release stated. “It does not — and under the First Amendment, cannot — codify a prior restraint that bars the press from disclosing grand jury information it obtains from a source.”

October 27, 2023

Atmore News reporter Don Fletcher was arrested in Atmore, Alabama, on Oct. 27, 2023, and charged with a felony for his reporting on an ongoing grand jury investigation, the newspaper reported.

Fletcher authored an article on Oct. 25 concerning an Escambia County investigation into allegations of mismanagement of federal COVID relief funds by the county Board of Education. The article referenced statements made by District Attorney Steve Billy at an Oct. 12 school board meeting confirming that the superintendent would not be brought before a grand jury.

The article also reported that the outlet had obtained documents stating that Billy had issued a subpoena seeking copies of checks labeled as “COVID” payments or bonuses.

Atmore News reported on Facebook that both Fletcher and the newspaper’s publisher and co-owner Sherry Digmon were arrested on Oct. 27, charged with revealing, disclosing or divulging grand jury information, a felony, and released about six hours later after paying $10,000 bonds.

When reached by phone, Fletcher confirmed to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the two had an initial hearing on Oct. 30 but directed all further inquiries to their attorney, Earnest White. White declined to comment when reached on Oct. 31.

Veronica “Ashley” Fore, a bookkeeper for the county school system, was also arrested and is charged with providing grand jury information to the media, according to WALA-TV. It was not immediately clear how Fore obtained the information.

Neither District Attorney Billy nor the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office responded to requests for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].