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LIMESTONE COUNTY, Ala. — The judge appointed to hear the theft and ethics case against Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely has recused himself, citing COVID-19 fears.

Retired Colbert County Circuit Judge Pride Tompkins issued a short order Wednesday that said, “Due to the corona virus pandemic and my high risk status I recuse myself from this case.”  

Blakely, Alabama’s current longest-serving sheriff, was indicted in August 2019, charged with stealing from his office and campaign fund and soliciting money from sheriff’s office employees.

Tompkins had set a March 29 trial date, but that was continued without a new date being set after courts across Alabama stopped jury trials after the virus spike in December and early January.

Tompkins was appointed to the case after Limestone County’s state court judges recused themselves shortly after Blakely’s indictment.

His withdrawal sets up further delays in a case that’s had several.

The case has had a number of turns, including Blakely telling the court he was being tested for COVID-19, an illness befalling Blakely’s attorney Robert Tuten, the pandemic pushing back the original trial date from March 2020, challenges presented by the plan to call about 500 people to the jury pool to try and offset Blakely’s high-profile in the community and, a delay following the death of Blakely’s wife in December.

Blakely has remained on the job since his indictment. In arguing to move the case forward last year, prosecutors pointed out, “Defendant Blakely, the Sheriff of Limestone County, was permitted to continue working as Sheriff because no Alabama law authorizes his suspension while under indictment.”

The sheriff has argued Alabama’s ethics law is unconstitutionally vague.

The case is being brought by the Alabama Attorney General’s office. Prosecutors in November asked Tompkins to set a trial date, arguing, “These people deserve a resolution on whether Defendant Blakely is guilty or innocent of the charges he faces. Three hundred and sixty-three days ago, he pleaded not guilty. The State should be permitted to make its case to show otherwise, under the safety protocols developed since this case was last set for trial.”

This comes after the Alabama Department of Public Health’s recent vaccine eligibility expansion that now includes judges. It’s unclear whether Tompkins has been vaccinated.