ATHENS — The judge handling Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely's felony trial chastised his lawyer Saturday for falsely claiming the hospitalized sheriff was being tested for COVID-19, but agreed to delay the trial by a week.
“It was very irresponsible on your part,” said retired Colbert County Circuit Judge Pride Tompkins at Saturday's hearing. “I’m concerned about COVID-19, and I’m sure the community is, too. There was no evidence to show” that Blakely had COVID-19.
“I don’t know if you wanted to scare jurors,” said Tompkins, who is handling the case after all Limestone County judges recused themselves.
Blakely’s lead attorney, Robert Tuten, responded at the hearing that “we're not trying to mislead anybody.”
The trial had been scheduled to start Monday.
Dr. Maria Acelajado Onoya, an attending physician at Athens-Limestone Hospital, said in a letter included in a defense motion to continue filed Friday that Blakely was admitted to the hospital that day for acute respiratory failure and asthma. According to the motion filed by Tuten, Blakely was "currently being tested" for COVID-19, a claim not included in the doctor's letter.
Onoya testified Saturday that Blakely was admitted to the hospital’s emergency room with shortness of breath. She said that when he was admitted, Blakely had labored breathing and an elevated white count, but no fever.
Blakely, 69, was tested for four types of coronavirus, which were all negative, but he wasn’t a candidate to be tested for COVID-19, Onoya testified. She said Blakely was tested for 16 conditions, including influenza, and those were all negative.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four types of coronavirus are very common and cause ailments like the common cold. They are distinct from more serious forms of coronavirus, such as COVID-19, MERS and SARS.
“I think he needs a couple of more days in the hospital,” Onoya said during her testimony.
Jurors are expected to report to the Limestone County Courthouse on Monday and be split into panels, then be dismissed for a week.
Onoya said Blakely was admitted Friday to the emergency room at about 5:15 a.m., and he was moved to a medical floor at about 7:30 a.m. He never was in intensive care, she said. Onoya testified that Friday was the third time Blakely had been to the hospital with similar symptoms and, when he was admitted to the hospital’s emergency room Feb. 28 for shortness of breath, he stayed a couple of hours and went home.
Tompkins asked Onoya if it was still her medical opinion that Blakely needed to be admitted on Friday, and she said yes.
Onoya said Blakely has medical conditions, like a history of hypertension and asthma, that mean he’s more prone to a prolonged recovery.
“He’s not going to be released (Sunday) or Monday,” she said. “He’ll have to be reevaluated.”
One of Blakely’s attorneys, Marcus Helstowski, asked Onoya if Blakely could withstand a three-week trial. “That’s a difficult question for me to answer,” since a patient’s condition will change by the day, she said.
After the hearing, Tompkins ordered that Onoya share with the court a copy of an assessment she plans to make Monday of Blakely's condition.
Tompkins said he was “very disturbed” by the reference to COVID-19 in the defense motion to continue.
Tuten responded that Blakely’s lawyers learned he was being tested for various types of coronavirus.
“I don’t think anyone understood there were different kinds” of coronavirus, he said.
Tuten said the defense lawyers believed it was important to inform the court that Blakely was in the hospital.
After the hearing, Tompkins issued an order that all future pleadings in the case "shall be filed under seal until further orders of this court."
“We were not trying to pull a fast one,” Tuten said at the hearing, adding that he was present in court against the advice of his surgeon.
The defense has unsuccessfully sought to delay the trial based on Tuten's health.
“We’re going to do the best we can,” Tuten said. “We’re not trying to mislead anybody."
Deputy Attorney General Clark Morris spoke after Tuten, saying that "putting those words (COVID-19) in the public domain is what causes the frenzy.”
Blakely, in his 10th term as sheriff, was charged in August with theft and ethics violations in a 13-count indictment.
Tompkins previously denied a motion to continue that sought a delay in the trial due to Tuten’s health issues. Tuten said at a hearing last month that he was suffering from complications from a recent surgical procedure and would be unable to try the case if it proceeded as scheduled.
Attorneys for Blakely filed a motion at 2 p.m. Friday again asking for a continuance of the trial, noting that Blakely had consulted other attorneys about the possibility of replacing Tuten as lead counsel.
“Due to the complexity of the case and the voluminous discovery involved, none of the attorneys consulted could do so without substantial preparation time,” the motion noted.
Tompkins denied the motion 51 minutes after it was filed, but scheduled Saturday's hearing after another motion for continuance, citing Blakely's hospitalization, was filed Friday at 4:33 p.m.
Also, on Friday afternoon, Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a motion to dismiss, without prejudice, one count of third-degree theft and one count of use of position for personal gain in the Limestone County special grand jury’s indictment. No explanation was given for that request, which was granted by the judge.