Alabama judge bars public, media from jury selection in trial of sheriff accused of theft, ethics charges

Published 5:15 pm Monday, July 12, 2021

Jury selection began Monday in the trial of a longtime Alabama sheriff accused on theft and ethics charges, but news outlets and the public were barred from attending jury selection.

News outlets report that potential jurors reported for jury selection for the trial of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, but the public and the media were barred from attending the proceedings at the Limestone County Event Center.

WHNT reported that 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. The station said jury selection has been public in other high-profile trials in the area including that of a police officer accused of murder.

The Alabama Supreme Court in a 1993 ruling regarding the closure of pretrial proceedings wrote that it has previously found, “since the development of trial by jury, the process of selection of jurors has presumptively been a public process with exceptions only for good cause shown.”

“Conducting pretrial criminal proceedings in an atmosphere of secrecy is offensive to the general public and undermines the public trust essential to an effective judicial system,” justices wrote.

Blakely faces a dozen felony counts alleging he stole campaign donations, got interest-free loans and solicited money from employees.

He has pleaded not guilty and announced plans to seek an 11th term in office if acquitted. While state law doesn’t require the removal of a sheriff under indictment, a conviction would result in his automatic ouster from office.

In office since 1983, Blakely is currently the state’s longest-serving sheriff. Court officials summoned roughly five times as many potential jurors as normal, about 500 people, because Blakely is so well known in the area, news outlets reported.

Prosecutors have tried to tie charges that Blakely took money from public and campaign accounts to claims that Blakely drinks and gambles in out-of-state casinos. While the defense argued that such evidence is aimed at harming the sheriff’s reputation, a judge ruled previously that jurors would be allowed to hear it.

Meanwhile, Baschab barred the defense from presenting evidence to show that other public officials have done the same thing as Blakely without being charged. In a brief order, she agreed with prosecutors who claimed that an “everyone is doing it and the state is picking on me” defense can’t be presented to jurors.

“Because past or present conduct of others is irrelevant to a determination of Blakely’s guilt or innocence, any evidence about them is inadmissible,” prosecutors from the state attorney general’s office argued in court documents.

Attorneys have subpoenaed dozens of potential witnesses for the trial, which was delayed several times for reasons including the pandemic.