ATHENS, Ala. – Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely is due to go on trial in July, more than 14 months after his original trial date, on charges he violated state ethics law and stole from his office.
He was indicted in August 2019 and has remained the sheriff while awaiting trial.
Blakely has been sheriff for nearly 38 years and with the trial set to take place in Limestone County, finding an impartial jury will be a challenge.
This week the trial judge approved a schedule for juror notices and the release and return of jury questionnaires. On May 10 jury summons will go out, on May 24 questionnaires will go out, and the questionnaires are due to be returned by June 8.
Jury selection in a high-profile case is usually complicated. In death penalty cases you’ll often see more than 100 people in the jury pool. Because Blakely is so well-known in Limestone County, the jury pool could be as large as 500 people.
Blakely has been in office since 1983 and, one way or another, numerous residents have had contact with his office. The questionnaire, agreed upon by the prosecution and defense, will go out to would-be jurors as the state and defense look to identify bias against or sympathy for Blakely.
The questionnaire asks the jury pool to fill out plenty of biographical information, along with things like, if they live on the east or west side of I-65, their attitudes toward law enforcement, if they’ve visited the Limestone County rodeo grounds — where the Sheriff hosts an annual rodeo — and if they’ve ever been falsely accused or blamed for someone else’s mistake.
In a filing Friday, prosecutors asked the judge to deny a defense motion seeking to block any references to Blakely’s drinking and gambling.
They contend gambling evidence is central to their theft arguments.
“Specific evidence of Blakley’s gambling and his presence in casinos is plainly probative to the State’s case that Blakely solicited money outside the ordinary course of business and that he spent LCSO funds for non-official purposes,” the filing argues. “For example, evidence that Blakley was in a casino in Biloxi, Alabama when the LCSO provided him travel money to attend an official conference in Orange Beach makes it ‘more probable’ that Blakely intended to steal LCSO funds.”
Were Blakely’s blanket motion to exclude evidence of “gambling practices” to succeed, the jury would hear simply that Blakley received wires from subordinates during official travel and that Blakley got advance travel checks to attend conferences.
“Alternatively, the jury would not hear evidence tending to show Blakely was not conducting official business—i.e., he was gambling—when he received LCSO wire transfers; it would not hear evidence that Blakely was in a casino in another State during an Alabama Sheriff’s conference the LCSO paid him to attend, and it would not hear evidence showing that Blakely gambled away LCSO funds rather than applying that money to law enforcement objectives. In other words, the absence of this evidence would make it ‘less probable’—nay, impossible—that the jury could return guilty verdicts on these counts.”
A copy of the jury questionnaire can be found here.