ATHENS, Ala. (AP) — Jury selection for the criminal trial of a longtime Alabama sheriff resumed Wednesday with members of the media and public allowed in court after a judge agreed to open the proceedings, which had been conducted in secret.
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely and attorneys gathered with prospective jurors after Judge Pamela Baschab, a retired state appeals judge brought in after local judges stepped aside, allowed reporters into court.
Baschab issued a brief order saying she would grant a joint request by the prosecution and defense to open the proceedings after media groups, newspapers and broadcasters sought to intervene, arguing that it was unconstitutional to bar the public from jury selection. She then denied the request by news organizations as being moot in a separate order.
News outlets reported that Baschab, who served as a judge in Baldwin County before being elected to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, told media members she never before had allowed the media to attend jury selection during a trial.
“There were good and valid reasons I decided to keep it closed,” she said.
Blakely, 70, has pleaded not guilty to a dozen felony counts alleging he stole campaign donations, got interest-free loans and solicited money from employees. Prosecutors in court documents tied his actions to alcohol use and gambling visits to out-of-state casinos.
Once the public was allowed in Tuesday afternoon, defense lawyer Robert Tuten asked potential jurors questions about topics including their attitude toward gambling and whether they believed police should be held to a higher standard than others.
First elected in 1983, Blakely has kept working as sheriff since his indictment in 2019. He has announced plans to run again if acquitted, but a felony conviction would result in his automatic removal from office.