Judge OKs media request for access to Alabama sheriff trial

Mike Blakely
This booking photograph released by the Limestone Sheriff's Office shows Sheriff Mike Blakely following his arrest on theft and ethics charges on Aug. 22, 2019. Blakely is set to stand trial nearly two years after he was indicted. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday, July 12, 2021, for the Limestone County sheriff, who has continued to serve despite facing a dozen felony counts alleging he stole campaign donations, got interest-free loans and solicited money from employees. (Limestone County Sheriff's Office via AP)

A judge on Tuesday reversed course and will allow reporters to witness jury selection in the corruption trial of a longtime north Alabama sheriff.

Retired Criminal Appeals Judge Pamela Baschab, who is presiding over the case against Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, granted the request from media organizations. They included the Alabama Press Association and the Alabama Broadcasters Association, joined with newspapers and television stations.

Baschab had initially barred reporters and the public from attending jury selection.

Members of the public have a constitutional right to attend criminal court proceedings, the media groups said, adding that Baschab’s decision to hold jury selection “in secret is unconstitutionally overbroad.”

Referring to reports that the judge closed the selection process for the comfort of potential jurors, media members argued that the judge failed to take less restrictive steps that could include asking potential jurors sensitive questions in her office.

In office since 1983 and indicted in 2019, the 70-year-old Blakely has pleaded not guilty to a dozen felony counts alleging he stole campaign donations, got interest-free loans, and solicited money from employees.

Deputies who work for Blakely were used to guard doors and keep the public and media members out of his trial, news outlets reported. The public presumably will be allowed once testimony begins.

Blakely has continued to work since Alabama law doesn’t require that an indicted sheriff be suspended or removed. A felony conviction would result in his automatic removal from office.

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.