LIMESTONE COUNTY, Ala. – There is another delay in the criminal case against Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely.
The judge appointed to hear the case, retired Colbert County Judge Pride Tompkins recused himself Wednesday, citing COVID-19 concerns. That decision comes the same week the Alabama Department of Public Health expanded its list of vaccine eligibility to include judges and prosecutors.
Tompkins’ recusal means Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker will have to appoint a replacement.
Blakely was indicted in August 2019 on theft and ethics charges, including stealing from the sheriff’s office. But, he has remained in office pending the outcome of his case.
Blakely was set to go on trial in March 2020 but the pandemic forced a delay.
Nearly a year later he remains on the job and is still waiting for his day in court.
The Alabama Office of Courts, which supervises the state’s court system, confirmed that Parker would appoint a new judge. The Alabama Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, said it is pressing forward with the prosecution but declined to comment on the judge’s decision to recuse. Blakely’s defense also declined comment.
Ron Smith, a Huntsville criminal defense attorney, said with a new judge being seated, the case in many ways starts over.
“There’s no legal requirement that I’m aware of that makes a new judge bound by the decisions of the prior judge,” he said.
For Blakely’s lawyers, that could mean new arguments over the case against him.
“If you’re a defense attorney and you’re unhappy with a ruling on a motion to dismiss, or any similar motion, go back and ask the judge to reconsider,” Smith said. “You may have new issues to argue, there may be new facts that you’ve learned and I don’t even think you have to have new evidence, you can just ask the judge to consider the argument again.”
When the chief justice makes the appointment the new judge will have plenty of work ahead. The case against Blakely involves thousands of pages of financial records and prosecutors from the Alabama Attorney General’s Office want the jury pool to number about 500, reflecting Blakely’s longstanding ties to the community.
“If you’ve got a case that’s got a whole lot of discovery, a lot of motions have been filed, a lot of novel issues, it will probably take you a lot longer just to get up to speed on exactly what is going on with the case,” he said.
The next judge is likely to come from a list of retired judges.
“Schedule and timing obviously would be pretty important in a case that’s been hanging around for a few years,” he said. “You definitely would want somebody who could come in and try it within a year.”