The attorney general's office has added to their original argument against excluding evidence of Limestone Sheriff Mike Blakely's gambling habits from their case, saying it's relevant to many of the counts with which he's been charged, records show.
The supplemental opposition to a motion filed by the defense was submitted last week because a new judge had been assigned and the original opposition and motion were more than a year old, according to state attorneys. Blakely's defense attorney had filed a motion "to exclude any evidence of his 'gambling and drinking practices'" under seal in January 2020, the supplement reads.
However, the state claims that such evidence applies to five of the 11 counts in Blakely's indictment, which accuse him of theft, using his office for personal financial gain and soliciting money from an employee "outside the ordinary course of business." According to the supplement, Blakely was at casinos in Las Vegas; Biloxi, Mississippi; or Atmore, Alabama, when the crimes occurred.
"The State does not expect that defense counsel will deny that Blakely visited these places or that Blakely solicited or received cash from the (Limestone County Sheriff's Office) or a subordinate," the supplement reads. "The parties instead will debate the circumstances and the intent underlying these actions."
For the state's part, those circumstances are that he was not conducting official business when he asked an employee to wire him $1,000, and being able to say whether or not he was gambling at the casino is necessary.
"Alternatively, the jury would not hear evidence tending to show Blakely was not conducting official business ... when he received LCSO wire transfers; it would not hear evidence that Blakely was in a casino in another state during an Alabama Sheriff's conference the LCSO paid him to attend; and it would not hear evidence showing that Blakely gambled away LCSO funds rather than applying that money to law enforcement objectives," the supplement reads.
"In other words, the absence of this evidence would make it 'less probable' — nay, impossible — that the jury could return guilty verdicts on these counts," it says.
The motion to exclude the evidence that was filed by Blakely's defense team in January 2020 remained under seal Tuesday despite a later order by Judge Pride Tompkins against such filings. The state has said Blakely's argument for excluding the evidence is that he is a 10-term sheriff facing a highly publicized trial and having gambling or drinking evidence made public would risk unfair prejudice from jurors.
"Blakely would have a stronger argument if the State's intention was to paint Blakely as an unrepentant gambler by introducing evidence of gambling trips bearing no connection to the charged crimes or by gratuitously introducing gambling evidence for the purpose of disparaging his character," the supplement reads. "The State intends to do no such thing."
As for his drinking, the "State does not expect Blakely's drinking habits — whatever they may be — to be a significant part of its case," according to the supplement. However, it noted a majority of the prosecution's witnesses are closer to Blakely than the state attorneys, so they have "limited control over whether any of its witnesses may mention drinking."
Blakely's trial was initially set to begin a year ago but only got as far as selecting a jury before the pandemic began and all trials were placed on hold. Judge Pamela Baschab, who was assigned to the trial after Tompkins recused himself, said a jury questionnaire used for that selection process could be modified and reused for a new jury.
The questionnaire, along with a possible schedule for distributing it, was filed by the AG's office March 30. In the unopposed motion, state attorneys proposed that Limestone County distribute jury summons May 10, distribute the questionnaires May 24 and require the questionnaires be returned by June 8.
The original five-page questionnaire sought general information about potential jurors, including employment information, military history and experience with law enforcement. The new one asks about one's level of comfort serving on a jury during an ongoing pandemic.
The previous jury selection required the use of an Athens City Schools facility due to lack of space at Limestone County Courthouse to accommodate the hundreds of individuals summoned as potential jurors. Officials have not said publicly where they will conduct the new jury selection.
About the case
Blakely, who was elected sheriff in 1982, pleaded not guilty to a 13-count indictment at a November 2019 arraignment. Two of the counts were later dismissed.
Of the remaining counts, four charge him with thefts from his campaign account, totaling $11,000; three are theft or ethics charges stemming from money taken from Limestone County funds; another charges him with soliciting $1,000 from an employee; and the final two charge him with using his position as sheriff to obtain interest-free loans, including from a safe that held money belonging to Limestone County Jail inmates.
The trial is due to begin July 12, with a final virtual hearing for pretrial motions set for April 12.