LIMESTONE COUNTY, Ala. – The jury selection process continued Tuesday morning for the trial of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely.
News agencies and the public were initially barred from observing the proceedings but the judge allowed members of the media into the courtroom around 2 p.m.
Judge Pamela Baschab said the ban was originally put into place because of limited space at the Limestone County Courthouse and juror privacy issues.
News 19 sent a letter to Baschab and Limestone County Circuit Clerk Brad Curnutt early Monday evening expressing concerns about the ban.
The bailiff and Curnutt’s secretary both said they were unaware of the letter.
Limestone County deputies were guarding the courthouse, leading to another concern – the defendant’s employees are guarding what appears to be a secret trial.
Around noon Tuesday, the Alabama Broadcasters Association, along with News 19 and other media outlets statewide, filed a motion to open the jury selection process to the public and provide a transcript to the media/public of the proceedings that have been conducted out of the public eye.
The motion cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling citing the First Amendment right of public access applies to criminal proceedings and an Alabama Supreme Court ruling that closing preliminary hearings in a murder trial was improper despite findings of a trial court.
In addition, the motion states no prior notice of the closure was given to the public, disallowing them a chance to contest the court’s decision.
You can read the motion here.
Blakely was indicted in 2019 on multiple theft and ethics charges in a case brought by the Alabama Attorney General’s office.
The case against Blakley focuses on the alleged misuse of sheriff’s office and campaign funds.
The public and the media were barred from Monday’s jury selection proceedings at the Limestone County Event Center. Alabama’s rules of criminal procedure say jury selection is to take place in open court. Recently, jury selection for the highly-charged murder trial of Huntsville Police officer William Darby and the death penalty case of Christopher Henderson, included a zoom feed set up for media in a separate room to address COVID-19 concerns.
Monday, no offer for a media feed had been made by the court in this case.
A court bailiff for retired Judge Pamela Baschab told reporters attempting to access the proceedings that the judge wanted to make sure jurors were comfortable and wouldn’t be bothered by media.
No public order was issued regarding the access ban, but the issue was raised by counsel to the judge, who said there wasn’t room for the media. However, as the News 19 I-Team has noted, the event center has plenty of space and media representatives have even offered to stand in the back of the room.
Ron Smith, a Huntsville attorney not affiliated with the case pointed News 19 to a Supreme Court ruling in Presley v. Georgia: “Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials. There are no doubt circumstances where a judge could conclude that threats of improper communications with jurors or safety concerns are concrete enough to warrant closing voir dire, but in those cases, the particular interest, and threat to that interest, must ‘be articulated along with findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure order was properly entered.”
News 19 has reached out to the Alabama Attorney General’s office for clarification on the access ban.
Smith also explained, “It’s the defendant’s right to have the public come in and watch what’s going on in this proceeding, but what’s different about it from the other rights in the Bill of Rights is that it’s also the public’s right to come in and see how justice is being handled in that community. So it’s not only my right if I get charged, it’s my right if I want to go watch some trial that doesn’t affect me at all.”
Because Blakely is so well-known in the community, there is a huge jury pool, numbering nearly 500 people. The list of subpoenaed witnesses includes at least 34 notices of service. That list includes sheriff’s office employees, state realtor board officials, casino employees from Mississippi and at least one representative from the Alabama Ethics Commission.
In summary, the Supreme Court ruling found that while there are circumstances that may warrant closing off direct public access, such as the size of a venue, the court still needs to consider alternatives to allow public access and transparency.
“I think the public has a mindset that if things are behind closed doors or not open to the public they start questioning about why and speculate about what may be going on behind closed doors. And I think obviously with any case you want to have an open proceeding where people can come in and watch and see what’s happening, make sure everybody is being treated fairly,” said Smith.
Jurors were excused shortly after noon for lunch, with plans to return at 1:30 p.m. Due to audio issues at the Event Center, jury selection was moved back to the Limestone County Courthouse.
Media and the public were still barred from observing the proceedings.