ATHENS — A judge on Tuesday afternoon opened previously closed court proceedings to media outlets and the public in the corruption trial of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely after The Decatur Daily and others filed a motion requesting that she allow public access.
"The public has constitutional rights to attend criminal court proceedings and conducting all voir dire in secret is unconstitutionally overbroad," according to the motion directed to retired Judge Pamela Baschab of Muscle Shoals, who is presiding over the trial after all Limestone County judges recused themselves.
Baschab filed no written order denying access, but reporters were advised by a court bailiff that they could not enter the sites of the jury selection process Monday at the Limestone County Event Center and early Tuesday at the courthouse. As of late Tuesday, she still had issued no written order granting the motion, although she began allowing access soon after it was filed.
Addressing two reporters after the jury had left the courtroom Tuesday, Baschab said she has never before allowed media to attend jury selection in a trial, and that jury selection has never before been open to the media "in the history of Limestone County."
"There were good and valid reasons I decided to keep it closed," she said, emphasizing that she made the decision alone, not at the request of the prosecution or defense.
"I have no reason to be secretive," she said.
The lawyers on both sides are prevented from speaking to the media by a gag order imposed by a previous judge but which has remained in place since Baschab took over the case.
One of Blakely's lawyers, Robert Tuten, was in the midst of asking questions of jurors as members of the media realized Baschab had opened the proceeding. As each member of the media entered the courtroom, Baschab interrupted Tuten, called on the reporters to identify themselves and told them they could not have cellphones or recording devices and could not interact with the jurors.
The motion, filed by attorney Dennis Bailey on behalf of the media, sought to have the jury selection process opened to the public and the media. The motion requested the court "to halt secret voir dire and to begin the process over so that as much of the voir dire process as possible is conducted in open court." Voir dire is the examination and selection of jurors.
Alternatively, the motion asked that the court halt the secret proceedings and provide a written transcript of all of the proceedings which have already been held in secret.
The motion cited U.S. and Alabama Supreme Court rulings noting that the closure of preliminary hearings in a felony trial was improper and that the First Amendment right of public access to criminal proceedings extends to voir dire proceedings. It also pointed to the Alabama Constitution, which declares that "all courts shall be open."
About 30 members of the jury pool were present at the proceedings Tuesday afternoon. Tuten asked numerous questions of the group and asked them to raise their hands in response.
"Does anyone have an opinion on legalized gambling in Alabama?" he asked. Prosecutors have indicated in pleadings that Blakely's gambling is tied to some of the charges against him. Several jurors raised their hands, and the judge and lawyers met with each one at the front of the courtroom, out of hearing of the media.
The same procedure was used when Tuten asked if any of the prospective jurors had bumper stickers on their vehicles, but Baschab told him the jurors could answer from their seats when he asked if any had hobbies.
Tuten also asked jurors, "Does anyone feel like people who gamble are inherently bad people?" No jurors raised their hands. Jurors also kept their hands down when he asked if they felt "a police officer should be held to a higher standard just because they are a police officer."
Most of the prospective jurors in the portion of the jury pool questioned Tuesday afternoon appeared to be white females. Four of the roughly 30 prospective jurors were Black.
Tuten told jurors that Blakely's wife had died within the last year and asked if any had attended her funeral. None indicated they had.
Blakely, his arms crossed, was in uniform and silent while Tuten questioned the jurors. He has continued to serve as sheriff because Alabama law doesn't require that an indicted sheriff be suspended or removed. A felony conviction would result in his automatic removal from office.
Jury selection of a different portion of the jury pool will continue today at the courthouse, and jurors were told to congregate at Athens High School's auditorium Friday at 9 a.m. Baschab told the jury the testimony portion of the trial is expected to last one-and-a-half to four weeks.
Blakely, now serving his 10th term as sheriff, was charged in August 2019 with theft and ethics violations in a 13-count indictment. In March, the Attorney General's Office filed a motion to dismiss, without prejudice, one count of third-degree theft and one count of use of position for personal gain included in the Limestone County special grand jury’s indictment. The judge granted the motion.
Blakely has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In addition to Tennessee Valley Media, which includes the Decatur Daily, the motion to intervene in the case and open the jury selection proceedings was joined by the Alabama Press Association, the Alabama Broadcasters Association and several other media organizations.