Indicted Sheriff's Legal Team Uses False COVID-19 Claim To Get Trial Delayed
Athens, AL – A circuit court judge harshly admonished the attorney defending Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely for attempting to have his felony trial continued by falsely claiming that the ill sheriff was being tested for COVID-19.
"I don't know what your tactic is, but it's condemned by the court," Limestone County Circuit Court Judge Pride Tompkins said, according to The News Courier. "The court won't tolerate it."
Sheriff Blakely, 69, has been at the helm of the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) for 36 years, and is still serving in that capacity pending the outcome of the criminal trial, WHNT reported.
He has been charged with 11 counts of theft and misuse of power for personal gain.
In February, Sheriff Blakely’s legal team asked for a 30-day continuance due to the fact that his lead counsel, Robert Tuten, was taking longer to recover from surgery than originally anticipated, WHNT reported.
When Tompkins denied the motion, the defense team turned to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, hoping for the judge’s decision to be overruled.
That request was also denied.
On Friday, Sheriff Blakely’s attorneys claimed they had not been given enough time to prepare for trial, and requested that Tompkins continue the proceedings, which were slated to begin on Monday, WHNT reported.
Tompkins denied the request, so the legal team filed yet another motion to continue a few hours later.
In that filing, the attorneys claimed that Sheriff Blakely was suffering from respiratory failure, and that doctors had tested him for COVID-19.
Tompkins immediately scheduled an emergency hearing, which took place on Saturday, WHNT reported.
Dr. Maria Onoya, an emergency room physician who has been treating Sheriff Blakely since he showed up at the Athens-Limestone Hospital with respiratory problems on Friday, testified that the sheriff’s illness could have been caused by an array of different viruses, The News Courier reported.
Onoya also noted that there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in Alabama, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the sheriff should be tested for the disease.
She said he was tested for other conditions, including walking pneumonia and influenza, but that those tests came back negative.
Onoya said that Sheriff Blakely will likely need to remain hospitalized for “a couple more days,” and said she did not believe he would be physically prepared to go to trial on Monday, The News Courier reported.
State Prosecutor Clark Morris suggested that jurors still be convened as scheduled, then separated into panels to return at a later date.
Tompkins and Sheriff Blakely’s attorneys agreed.
Once the plan was in place, Tompkins turned his attention to the sheriff’s legal team.
He blasted them for referring to COVID-19 in a document that was open to the public, especially considering that their claims that Sheriff Blakely had been tested for the disease were false, The News Courier reported.
Tompkins said he was “very disturbed” by Tuten’s mention of COVID-19, and called the move reckless, irresponsible, and unfair to the community.
Tuten argued that the team was told that Sheriff Blakely was tested for coronavirus, and that they were unaware that COVID-19 is but one of many diseases that can be caused by the coronavirus family of viruses.
“There are apparently several different kinds of coronaviruses, but all we had to go on was what we knew at that moment,” he said.
"While we're talking about this, let me just say I am here under protest and against the medical advice of my surgeon, forced to be here by you," Tuten added, according to The News Courier. "We are doing the best we can, judge, but we are not trying to pull a fast one. We're not trying to mislead anybody."
Morris noted that the matter could have been handled during a conference call instead of creating a potential “frenzy” by “putting those words in the public domain.”
Tompkins has ordered that Sheriff Blakely’s case be continued for one week, WHNT.
He also sealed all future proceedings related to the case.
According to court records, Sheriff Blakely has been accused of stealing a total of $11,000 from his campaign account in four separate incidents, WHNT previously reported.
He also allegedly solicited a $1,000 wire transfer from a subordinate, illegally withdrew county funds, and used his position as sheriff to acquire interest-free loans.