ATHENS — Despite emotional testimony from the defendant, his son and a former employee, a judge on Friday sentenced former Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely to the maximum three years in jail requested by prosecutors.
Judge Pamela Baschab ruled the sentence must be served in a jail outside Limestone County and will be followed by two years of unsupervised probation. She denied the state Attorney General’s Office’s request that Blakely be fined or ordered to pay restitution.
Blakely, who had been in Limestone County Jail since his Aug. 2 conviction on two felony counts, was released Friday on a $50,000 appeal bond. Blakely appealed the sentence and conviction — for first-degree theft and use of official position or office for personal gain — minutes after the judge announced the sentence. The posting of an appeal bond means he will not have to serve jail time until after the appeal is resolved.
As he did at trial, Blakely testified at his sentencing hearing. With long white whiskers and wearing a white polo shirt the former sheriff had to pause several times to regain his composure, especially when mentioning his family members. He did not discuss the crimes for which he was convicted.
“One of the biggest regrets in my life is that being sheriff — being totally committed to that job — there’s a lot of times when I was kicking a door down for a drug raid or working on a homicide case or helping someone else with their problems. I know it took a lot away from my family,” he said.
He said his “hobbies today are riding horses and helping people.”
Blakely said he regularly told his employees there were “three Cs” to being a good officer: “Courage, common sense and compassion. And the most important thing is compassion. … Compassion for the people who we serve, compassion for the people we arrest, compassion for the people we’ve got in jail.”
“It’s a really different experience staying in my jail, but I’m thankful for that,” Blakely said.
He told the judge he has appreciated the support he’s received from the community since being in jail.
“No matter what happens to me, I’m blessed,” he said. “I just want you to know that I care about the people in this county. It’s been an honor to serve.”
Assistant Attorney General Kyle Beckman argued that Blakely lied when he took the stand during trial, and that was a reason for giving him a harsher sentence. Blakely objected to the accusation.
“I believe in being honest. I think it’s insulting that Mr. Beckman accused me of lying,” Blakely said, and then accused prosecutors of lying. Baschab said her sentencing decision would not be affected by the state’s allegations that he committed perjury.
“Your honor, my fate is in your hands. I never had the intent to break the law,” Blakely said. “... I’m sorry for the decision that you have to make and I truly apologize. … More than anything, I haven’t seen my dog in three weeks. I sure would love to see it.”
In arguing for probation rather than jail time, lead defense lawyer Robert Tuten focused on the “collateral consequences” suffered by Blakely as a result of his conviction, including his automatic removal from an office he had held for 38 years.
“Mike Blakely has first of all lost his career. He’s lost his job and, because he was under the old retirement system, by virtue of losing his job he’s now lost his retirement. He has nothing at this point. He’s lost his reputation and he’s lost his dignity from being confined in the county jail for the last three weeks,” Tuten said. “What could be more punishment than what the collateral consequences are here, your honor?”
Tuten said no jail sentence was necessary for other public officials to be deterred from committing crimes.
“Obviously the massive statewide and even national publicity about this case is enough to deter anybody,” Tuten said, adding there is no possibility of Blakely committing future similar crimes because he has been removed from office.
Tuten said the strong community support for Blakely made clear that probation and community service would be a more effective sentence than jail.
“There’s nothing good that can come from locking him up. We simply ask you not to do that,” Tuten said.
The courtroom was crowded, primarily with supporters of Blakely. Beckman referenced this community support in arguing for jail time.
“You don’t get to be a 10-time elected sheriff if there aren’t people that like you. We will stipulate that there are people that like this defendant,” Beckman said as he gestured toward the crowd. “But that is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. If anything it goes toward his culpability.
“He had all these opportunities. He had all this support and he committed the crimes anyhow. Most defendants that come into this courtroom didn’t have the support, didn’t have the six-figure salary, didn’t have the family support and the opportunities that this defendant has. They get punished. This defendant needs to be punished, too.”
Maggie Suttle, an employee of the Sheriff’s Office who is assigned to courthouse security, gave a tearful plea for mercy, stressing that Blakely had helped her brother become a productive citizen when at one time the brother “got into trouble and he was headed into a brick wall.”
“People make mistakes,” she said. “Even with that mistake, I want you to understand how great the sheriff has been to the community and especially my family.”
Michael Anthony “Andy” Blakely II also testified, occasionally breaking down. He said the former sheriff, a rare elected Democrat in north Alabama, was a strict father but a good man.
“He’s always stood for the American values. While some people think Democrats are a bunch of liberal crazies, he was a Southern Democrat,” the younger Blakely said. “… He’s been a servant leader his entire life. A servant leader puts the needs of the community and people that he serves in front of everybody else. That’s what he’s done.”
'I'm begging you'
Andy Blakely said the family never knew if the elder Blakley would return from work safely, either when he was the sheriff or before then as a state trooper.
“Your honor, I’m begging you. The sum of a man is not one thing,” he said. “I pray that you will take into consideration everything that this man has done.”
Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Sue Bell Cobb made an appearance Friday as an attorney for Mike Blakely. While Blakely during his testimony made no specific acknowledgement of improper conduct, Cobb said the former sheriff “has made some serious mistakes. … He shouldn’t have done it and he regrets it.”
She said because of that regret and because of the loss of his job and his retirement, he has been punished enough.
“There are no victims in this crime,” she said. “The only victims really are Mike Blakely and his family.”
Blakely was convicted of first-degree theft for taking $4,000 from his campaign fund and depositing it in his personal account. The conviction for using his official position for personal gain involved him frequently borrowing cash from a safe that held inmate funds, money that he ultimately repaid.
After the hearing, Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Clark Morris said she was pleased with the sentence.
“I think the judge sent a message that public corruption is not going to be tolerated in Limestone County. I’m hoping that we as the Attorney General’s Office sent a message that we are not going to tolerate public corruption,” Morris said. “It’s been a big summer and it was a long trial, and honestly I think justice was served today.”
The Attorney General's Office had requested that Blakely serve three years. The state had also requested that Blakely be fined $10,000 for each count and that he be ordered to pay $4,000 in restitution, requests the judge denied. The state also asked that his two years of probation after leaving jail be supervised, but Baschab ruled it would be unsupervised.
Tuten said after the hearing that "obviously we are not happy" with the sentence.
“This has been quite a case. It’s been quite a saga,” he said, noting that Blakely was convicted of only two counts of the original 13 included in the August 2019 indictment. “The big question of the day seems to be how long the appeal will take. Right now nobody knows that. The more complicated the case is the longer it will take, and I can tell you that this is pretty complicated.”