The corruption trial of Alabama’s longest-serving sheriff began in secret Monday.

Specially appointed Judge Pamela Baschab barred members of the press and public from observing jury selection in the trial of Limestone County’s 10-term sheriff, Mike Blakely.

A sheriff’s deputy blocked entry and told reporters from local news outlets that they had to remain outside the Limestone County Event Center where jury selection is being held this week.

The decision to proceed in secret appeared to run afoul of Alabama law, legal precedent and other rules governing state courts.

Dennis Bailey, a lawyer for the Alabama Press Association, said a judge needs “incredibly good reasons” for closing a criminal trial to the public — particularly in a case involving an elected official accused of violating the public’s trust.

“Courts are supposed to be open,” Bailey said. “That’s what our constitution provides. I’m at a loss as to understand why you would conduct jury selection in secret in a case like this.”

Alabama law mandates that jury trials be open to the public. Bailey pointed to a 1992 state Supreme Court decision regarding public and press access to criminal court proceedings. The justices noted that jury selection has always been a public process “with exceptions only for good cause shown.”

Blakely has been the sheriff in Limestone County since 1983. He is just one of several county officials — the others include a judge, a former commissioner and two school superintendents — who have come under scrutiny for corruption in the past two years.

Blakely is charged with 11 counts of theft and abuse of power. He is accused of stealing from his office and campaign accounts and using his position for personal financial gain.

Tony King, the judge’s bailiff, speaking with reporters outside the event center, said that Baschab chose to close off the proceedings to the public because of concerns about security and limited seating.

“She would want to make certain that jurors felt comfortable,” King said. “That there wasn’t people asking them — taking their names and so on and so forth. And so for that reason, she’s not having access.”

King did not answer questions about whether the judge had held a hearing or issued a written order. There is no order included in Blakely’s public court file.

“I’m just relaying what she (the judge) told me,” King said.

Blakely’s defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Alabama Attorney General’s Office are not allowed to comment publicly about the case because of a gag order that was issued by a previous judge assigned to the case and left in place by Baschab.

In their 1992 ruling, the Alabama Supreme Court justices, wrote about the importance of press access to court proceedings and the public’s right to examine whether unfairness, discrimination or incompetence are influencing court outcomes.

“Secrecy of judicial action can only breed ignorance and distrust of courts and suspicion concerning the competence and impartiality of judges,” the ruling says.

Jury selection in Blakely’s trial is expected to continue through the end of the week. Opening statements are expected to begin next week at the Limestone County Courthouse.

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(3) comments

joseph walker

I was wrong on the deleted statement. My apologizes to the Daily for the incorrect statement.

joseph walker

Since my post was deleted, guess I will try again but this time shorter. Whatever verdict occurs in the Sheriff Blakely trial there will be another because I am sure it will be brought up in appeal about banning the public from jury selection. Also, sure looks like they are hiding something.

Jo Shaffer

"Light of day"? Isn't that when you find cockroaches? Guess i will never see it then.

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