LIMESTONE COUNTY, Ala. – The public corruption trial for Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely began Monday morning with jury selection.
Blakely, who first took office in 1983, faces theft and ethics charges in a case brought by the Alabama Attorney General’s office.
In August 2019, Blakely was indicted 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.
No offer for a media feed has 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 whats 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.
Jury selection concluded at 4 p.m., with the prosecution, defense, and Blakely himself departing; in Blakely’s case, a marked Sheriff’s Office cruiser pulled up to the courthouse for him.
News 19 overheard defense attorney Robert Tuten say the jury selection process will resume Tuesday at 9 a.m.