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For nearly half a century, Escambia County “Law Day” has offered local high school seniors an opportunity to get an up-close and personal look at the judicial system by spending two days at the courthouse in Brewton. But the court of public opinion has already rendered a verdict about one of the speakers on the original agenda: Former Governor Don Siegelman.

Siegelman will not be addressing the students as planned.

“I was surprised and somewhat disappointed,” said Siegelman. “I was looking forward to talking with young people.”

Siegelman, a Democrat who served as governor of Alabama from 1999 until 2003, spent six years in federal prison after being convicted of charges that included bribery. He recently regained his law license and was asked to attend Law Day by Atmore attorney Charles Godwin, who has overseen the event for more than 40 years.

But when the agenda was emailed to local and county officials, school board members and others in the legal community, it raised a lot of eyebrows. Especially those of Escambia County School Superintendent Michele McClung. She felt it was inappropriate to have a convicted felon speaking to students. McClung quickly found out she was not alone in her opinion, as she was bombarded with calls, emails and office visits from concerned parents who agreed with her and were uncomfortable with Siegelman addressing their children.

In an era where parents are laser-focused on what’s taught in schools, this was not going to end well. School board member Mike Edwards shared his concerns with the superintendent.

“Siegelman is not a good example for our students,” said Edwards.

Edwards added that Siegelman’s book, ‘Stealing our Democracy, How the Political Assassination of a Governor Threatens our Nation’ was an example that “the former governor does not take responsibility for his actions.”

Meanwhile, Siegelman sent an email to everyone on the list suggesting they watch a documentary about his case titled ‘Atticus vs. The Architect: The Political Assassination of Don Siegelman.’ The two-hour film lays out the case that the former governor was innocent and simply the target of political opponents who “wanted Don Siegelman out of the way.”

The superintendent was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. She considered Law Day to be an invaluable experience for students and knew they were looking forward to it. So she came up with what she considered a win-win proposal for Godwin: schedule a break just before the former governor’s talk and allow students who didn’t want to listen to step out of the courtroom, then return when the talk was over.

McClung asked him, “How many times have you presented a convicted felon to students?”

The answer was “none.”

In addition, McClung found out that one of the school system’s employees had been drafted to record and stream the speech without her permission.

Godwin felt it would be “disruptive” for students to walk out, and that they should stay for the entire program or not come at all. He told 1819 News, “We don’t censor the presentation, we give parameters. Speakers must talk about their careers.” He considered Siegelman’s experience made him “the best speaker who went through that process.”

McClung and Godwin were at an impasse. The superintendent felt “a storm was coming.”

The backlash began to build as Godwin started to get calls, one of which was from a person who had been a juror on Siegelman’s trial. What had always been an educational school field trip could turn into a public relations nightmare.

“I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t the message for high school seniors,” Godwin said.

Godwin sent a letter to the former governor, rescinding the invitation, saying, “There was a huge backlash from school superintendents, judges, newspaper journalists, school administrators, school board members and parents of high school seniors. The common complaint is the position that our judicial system is corrupt. This contradicts the message that we have been getting across for 47 years.”

Godwin later got permission from McClung to stream Law Day and thanked her in an email to everyone on the list.

Siegelman didn’t expect the letter.

When asked what he was going to include in his 20-minute talk, he told 1819 News he would have shared some quotes from his favorite presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, discussed the need for justice reform and mentioned his trial.

“I was going to tell them to get in the arena, find your passion and to give of themselves to make life better,” said Siegelman. “Imagine you’re on the ship of state. You can be a stowaway or be a captain and serve as a moral compass.”

Resistance to Siegelman’s story isn’t new, as documentary producer Steve Wimberly discovered when his film was released in 2017. Wimberly was unaware of the case until a college classmate told him about it. He visited the former governor in prison and for the next three years collected research and interviews, laying out a detailed argument in the documentary, like an expert defense attorney. When he asked to show the film in Montgomery’s independent Capri Theatre, the board of directors would not allow it. It was later shown at Troy University’s Davis Theatre.

Wimberly, a veteran producer who now works for the Discovery Network, said his documentary shows that “the law is supposed to be about truth and justice” and believes Siegelman wanted to have a positive influence on the students at Law Day.

“I do believe his intentions are very pure,” said Wimberly. “I couldn’t find any corruption that he was accused of.”

Wimberly added that the “Atticus” in the title does not just refer to the character in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but also to ancient Greek and Roman orators of the same name. The “architect” of the plan to take down Siegelman is suggested to be political operative Karl Rove.

Siegelman was convicted in 2005 and the following year, HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy was convicted in connection with the bribery investigation. Prosecutors said Scrushy gave half a million dollars to Siegelman's campaign to gain a seat on the state health board. In exchange, Siegelman was to fight for a state lottery.

Siegelman did his time and has since vowed to fight for the innocent that are wrongly convicted.

Scrushy was sentenced to six years and 10 months in prison and has since been released. He maintains his innocence.

Law Day will go on as it always has. There will be no parents with torches and pitchforks storming the courthouse. McClung said her stance on this was never political but simply that she and many parents felt it was inappropriate for a speaker who had been convicted by a jury of his peers to address students.

As for Don Siegelman, he has another upcoming talk on his schedule and now that he has his law license again is only doing pro bono work. He is currently working on a death row case in South Carolina.

“I believed in the justice system before I was convicted, and I still believe in it,” Siegelman said.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email news@1819news.com

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