Aug. 3—ATHENS — Mike Blakely, the longest serving sheriff in the state, was escorted from the courtroom to the jail by one of his deputies Monday evening after a Limestone County jury convicted him of two felonies.
Under Alabama law Blakely, in his 10th term as Limestone County sheriff, was automatically removed upon being convicted of a felony. He has been succeeded by Limestone County Coroner Mike West until Gov. Kay Ivey names a replacement. Blakely, who first took office in 1983, faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the Class B felony convictions.
Pamela Baschab, the retired Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals justice who presided over the case, said she would schedule a sentencing hearing after a presentencing report is prepared.
Blakely, 70, was indicted in August 2019 on 12 felony and one misdemeanor counts. The Attorney General's Office dismissed three of the felony counts. The jury on Monday found Blakely not guilty on eight counts, including the misdemeanor.
"Public officials must set the highest example of accountability, and no matter how long someone holds office they are not above the law," according to a statement issued by Republican Attorney General Steve Marshall. "Sheriff Blakely repeatedly swore an oath to enforce and obey the law during his 40 years in office, and he now knows the consequences of violating that oath."
Minutes after the jury announced its verdict, Blakely's lawyers filed a motion to set bond pending his sentencing.
"Defendant has had no other violations and never (been) charged with any other offenses," according to the motion. "Defendant has been a lifelong resident of Limestone County, has strong ties and family in the community. Defendant is not a flight risk."
His pretrial bond had been set at $49,000. It was not immediately clear from court records whether the court had ruled on the motion.
Mark McDaniel, one of Blakely's lawyers, said Blakely would appeal.
The jury reached its verdict on the 16th day of a trial that included about four dozen witnesses.
The jury found Blakely, a Democrat, guilty of first-degree theft and use of his official position or office for personal gain. Both are Class B felonies punishable by up to 20 years.
Blakely was found guilty of one count involving his theft of $4,000 from his campaign account. Evidence presented at trial indicated Blakely used his campaign account to intentionally overpay Huntsville political consulting firm Red Brick Strategies. The owner of Red Brick, Trent Willis, testified Blakely arranged to pay Red Brick $7,500 when only $3,500 was owed. Willis testified the purpose of the overpayment was so that Blakely could pocket the extra $4,000.
Blakely's campaign treasurer testified he issued the $7,500 check at Blakely's instruction and was unaware of any arrangement between Blakely and Willis. Blakely testified the overpayment was a mistake. Bank records, however, showed Blakely deposited the check in his personal account on the same day Red Brick issued it. Unlike some other campaign funds he deposited into his personal account, Blakely never repaid the $4,000.
The defense called several witnesses attacking Willis' credibility, and the prosecution acknowledged he was under investigation by other branches of the state Attorney General's Office. At one point during Willis' testimony, at the recommendation of the prosecution, the judge warned him of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent so as to avoid self-incrimination. He elected to continue testifying.
Rather than defending Willis' character, Deputy Attorney General Clark Morris argued to the jury that Blakely had chosen to work with Willis and that bank records backed up his testimony.
The jury also convicted Blakely of using his office for personal gain. The evidence supporting this count came from Blakely's former jail clerk, Ramona Robinson, along with bank records. Robinson testified Blakely would routinely borrow money from a safe over which she had control that was used to hold inmate funds. She said he would typically borrow hundreds of dollars at a time, and she would place an IOU in the safe each time.
Robinson said he would periodically give her a check on his personal account to settle the IOUs, but he frequently instructed her to hold the checks rather than depositing them.
Another witness for the prosecution testified Blakely would have overdrawn his personal checking account if 19 of these checks — totaling $29,050 — had been cashed when issued, and that the checks were held without being deposited for up to 66 days. Robinson testified she would have feared for her job if she failed to hold the checks as instructed.
Blakely testified that on one occasion he may have told Robinson not to beat him to the bank so he could make a deposit.
At about 2:30 Monday afternoon, the jury submitted a question to the judge.
"We'd like to know what would happen if we cannot be unanimous on one or more of the counts," the note read.
After consulting with the lawyers, Baschab called the jurors into the courtroom and instructed them to continue their deliberations. She said a mistrial and resulting retrial would add to the expense of the state and the defense, and that a future jury would face the same difficulties they were encountering.
At 4:40 p.m., after a day and a half of deliberations, the jury returned to the courtroom with verdict forms completed.
Numerous Blakely supporters, including several deputies, remained in the courtroom both during trial testimony and during deliberations. As Blakely was escorted to the jail, they somberly followed him out. Some were crying.
— firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-340-2435. Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.