ATHENS, Ala. – News 19 continues to follow the unusual start to the ethics trial of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely.
Judge Pamela Baschab yesterday took a surprising step in barring the public and media from watching the jury selection process. But an attorney representing the rights of the media says established case law is clear; the public has a constitutional right to witness the entire trial.
That decision has now been reversed.
Here’s how Tuesday unfolded: News 19 was in communication with the judge’s office Monday to express our concerns. We were told by courthouse guards at the beginning of today that nothing had changed and the judge was still barring the public from watching jury selection.
Then just after noon, News 19, along with the Alabama Press Association, the Alabama Broadcasters Association, and other media outlets filed a motion in Limestone County Court to open the trial to the public. The motion was filed just after noon and echoed previous arguments that the public has a constitutional right to attend criminal court proceedings, and conducting all jury selection in secret is unconstitutionally overbroad. It requested a halt to all secret proceedings and requested a transcript of everything that’s happened in secret thus far to prevent the process from having to start over.
News 19 Investigative Reporter Dallas Parker and other media members present were summoned to the courtroom around 2 p.m. She was told that she was not allowed to have her phone inside the courthouse and would not be allowed to leave the courtroom until the court was in a break.
Judge Baschab, a retired appellate court judge, said it’s a first for her to have media present for jury selection. She said the decision to close the proceedings had been hers and did not come at the request of prosecutors or Blakely’s lawyers. The motion filed by News 19 and the media association cited both a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the First Amendment right of public access applies to criminal proceedings and an Alabama Supreme Court ruling that determined closing preliminary hearings in a murder trial was improper.
Judge Baschab has yet to file a response to the motion, give any new order, or communicate any rules to the public beyond speaking in person to Parker.
You can read the motion here.
Former US Attorney for the Northern District, Jay Town, tells News 19 the judge was facing an uphill battle in closing the courtroom.
“It’s always important to shine a big dose of daylight on any trial. It keeps the public informed about our justice system. It’s what keeps the public’s confidence in our justice system. And so closing any part of it down jeopardizes that,” Town said.
After Judge Baschab told reporters rules they would need to follow to observe jury selection, jurors were called back into the courtroom and the Attorney General’s Office began asking questions.
As it turns out, about a dozen of the potential jurors knew someone else in the room. Prosecutors asked potential jurors about law-enforcement training, including if they know anyone in law-enforcement, or had any experience with legal work or education. They also asked if anyone ever ran for political office or helped during a political campaign, including Blakely’s.
Attorneys for the prosecution also asked about Sheriff Blakely’s rodeo. Only three juror said they had never heard of it.
One juror said that they were Facebook friends with Sheriff Blakely.
Sheriff Blakely is obviously well known and that presents a challenge for picking a jury. Town explains the difficulties attorneys face.
“I think the state faces a great challenge in finding somebody who wouldn’t know Sheriff Blakely for instance. He’s been there for the better part of four decades,” Jay Town said. “From the defense side, you want to make sure that the jurors that are going to sit haven’t been tainted at all by articles that have been written or accusations that have been made on social media or other platforms.”
The defense also questioned jurors during which time some potential jurors brought up issues with legalizing gambling in Alabama.
Jury selection ended for the day around 4:30 in the afternoon.
Jury selection resumes Wednesday morning with another group of jurors.
The two sides estimated that once the jury is seated the case could last from 10 days to four weeks.