A judge on Tuesday reversed course and will allow reporters to witness jury selection in the corruption trial of a longtime north Alabama sheriff.
Retired Criminal Appeals Judge Pamela Baschab, who is presiding over the case against Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, granted the request from media organizations. They included the Alabama Press Association and the Alabama Broadcasters Association joined with newspapers and television stations.
Baschab had initially barred reporters and the public from attending jury selection.
“We joined the other media outlets in this filing because the public has a right to know what is going on in the courtroom, especially when it involves a corruption trial of an elected official,” said Katherine Miller, General Manager of The News Courier and The Cullman Times.
“Barring the media and the public from a courtroom should be a rare occurrence. If there is a case to be made for it, it should be done well in advance of jury selection.”
State and federal supreme courts have held that jury selections, or voir dire, are part of a criminal trial and thus should be open to the public, including news media.
However, as hundreds of potential jurors set to gather this week for the start of Blakely’s trial, reporters and the public were kept from the proceedings. A court bailiff was quoted as telling reporters that Judge Pamela Baschab had ordered the ban, but no court order or documentation explaining why had been filed in the state’s public records system as of Tuesday.
“It’s basic concept that you can’t expect people to have confidence in trials if you’re going to exclude them from a major part of the trial,” said Attorney Dennis Bailey, who filed the motion on behalf of several news outlets Tuesday afternoon.
Bailey said there are instances in which portions of voir dire can be held in secret, but that generally involves advance notice, articulated reasoning and a chance for the decision to be argued — none of which have happened in the Blakely trial.
“We just really can’t expect the citizens of Alabama to have confidence in the trial if they’re going to be excluded from the very selection of the jury,” he said.
Blakely has been elected to 10 consecutive terms as Limestone County’s sheriff, making him the longest-running sheriff in Alabama. He is accused of 11 theft and ethics charges, including theft of county and campaign funds and using his position to obtain interest-free loans.
Jury selection began Monday at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives but was moved to the Limestone County Courthouse that afternoon, where it continued Tuesday. It is the second time that jury selection has taken place in the trial, with the first jury being struck the day before the coronavirus pandemic led to the shutdown of courts statewide.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.