ATHENS — Despite facing multiple felony counts, Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely appeared to be the most popular man in the courtroom Wednesday as 46 prospective jurors were whittled down to 30.
The prospective jurors at the Limestone County Courthouse on Wednesday were just a fraction of the 500 who were originally summoned as jurors for Blakely's trial on corruption charges. Retired Judge Pamela Baschab is bringing the jurors in for voir dire, or jury selection, in four separate groups, with each session taking a day. The fourth session is today, and on Friday all of the jurors who have not been excused for cause will congregate at Athens High School.
Prospective jurors may be excused for cause by the judge, occasionally over the objection of the lawyers, for reasons that the court deems leave them unfit to sit on the case. Some were excused for medical issues, others because of bias or other reasons.
At Friday's session, lawyers with the Attorney General's Office and defense will have an opportunity to exercise peremptory challenges, which are challenges that allow each side to excuse jurors for any or no reason. Baschab will decide how many peremptory challenges each side gets.
Lawyers on both sides are subject to a gag order preventing them from commenting to the media. At Baschab's instruction, the prosecution and defense told the jurors what witnesses they expect to call at trial. The prosecution listed 36 and the defense listed nine. Baschab told prospective jurors the trial could take anywhere from one-and-a-half to four weeks, and some prospective jurors were excused if they had serious commitments during that time.
Assistant Attorney General Peggy Rossmanith handled most of the questioning of the jurors for the prosecution. Questions about jurors' opinions about Blakely and his performance in office were handled with one juror at a time so, as Baschab explained, their statements would not taint the entire jury.
Over and over during individual questioning, jurors said they had voted for Blakely and thought he was a good sheriff.
A sampling from different prospective jurors:
• "My opinion is he's done a good job as sheriff."
• "He's been a good sheriff for our town."
• "I like him."
• "I think he's a fine fellow, he's been a great sheriff and he's done a good job for the town," said one juror, who then added, "My own opinion of the attorney general is they should investigate him."
That juror also said he thought it possible that the prosecution by a Republican attorney general might be motivated by the fact Blakely is a Democrat.
• "I don't have anything but good things to say for him," said another prospective juror.
• "Absolutely wonderful," another said of Blakely's performance as sheriff.
• "He's been the sheriff since 1983, so he must be doing something right," said a prospective juror who was not excused.
One juror who spoke highly of Blakely was excused because she could not see herself sitting in judgment on him. Another two were excused because they were related to the sheriff.
One juror, who ultimately was excused, recalled being an 8-year-old and helping campaign for Blakely. Another elderly man was excused after noting, "I've known the boy all his life. ... Mike is a good friend. ... I think he's the salt of the earth."
Another juror, not excused, said it would be hard for him to serve on the jury "because I think he's a good man."
Blakely, in uniform at the defense table, smiled frequently at the jurors as they spoke.
One juror was excused after she said her daughter and a relative of Blakely's "went down the wrong road together."
Baschab added levity to proceedings, that were at times emotional for prospective jurors being questioned on sensitive issues, when she released everyone for a lunch break.
"Please refrain from an alcoholic beverage," she told the weary jurors. "I'm not going to drink any alcoholic beverages either, if that's any comfort. I'm going to be sober as a judge."
Rossmanith asked each juror, "What is your opinion of the Attorney General's Office coming from Montgomery to Limestone County to prosecute this case?" Few said that presented them concerns.
All of the prospective jurors who were not excused said that, regardless of their thoughts about Blakely, they could be fair and impartial jurors.
The jury that is ultimately empaneled will consider 11 felony counts against Blakely including two for first-degree theft, five for use of official position or office for personal gain, two for second-degree theft, one for third-degree theft and one for soliciting a thing of value from a subordinate.
Blakely is charged with $11,000 in thefts from his campaign account.
Other counts charge him with theft and ethics crimes stemming from his alleged appropriation of money from the Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Fund.
Other counts in the charge him with using his official position to acquire interest-free loans and using his official position to obtain interest-free loans by taking funds "from a safe that held money belonging to the Limestone County inmates."
Blakely pleaded not guilty to all 11 counts.
Before questioning of the prospective jurors began, Baschab read the entire indictment to them. She instructed prospective jurors not to look at any local media coverage.