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Seeking trial delay, sheriff makes false COVID-19 claim

ATHENS, Ala. (AP) — Lawyers for a longtime Alabama sheriff seeking a delay in his Monday theft trial wrongly claimed the officer was being tested for the illness caused by a new coronavirus.

With Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely set to go on trial on felony charges, his attorneys told a judge in a court document filed Friday he was hospitalized and being tested for COVID-19.

But testimony during a rare Saturday hearing showed the 69-year-old Blakely wasn’t being tested for the illness, and Circuit Judge Judge Pride Tompkins criticized the defense for making claims that could cause a public panic, The News Courier of Athens reported.

“I don’t know what your tactic is, but it’s condemned by the court,” Tompkins said. “And the court won’t tolerate it.”

Defense lawyer Robert Tuten said he was simply mistaken about the sheriff’s health problem and wasn’t “trying to pull a fast one.” Records indicated Blakely was hospitalized with a respiratory problem, but a doctor testified there was no indication it was COVID-19 and such testing wasn’t needed.

“There are apparently several different kinds of coronaviruses, but all we had to go on was what we knew at that moment,” Tuten said.

Dr. Maria Onoya testified during the hearing that Blakely was tested for several things, including influenza and walking pneumonia, but the results came back negative. The sheriff has been to the emergency room three times with similar symptoms and likely wouldn’t be ready for a trial on Monday, she said.

After the hearing, Tompkins ordered that all new filings in the case be sealed and unavailable to the public, so it wasn’t clear whether Blakely was out of the hospital and when the trial might begin.

Grand jurors indicted Blakely last year on multiple felony counts and one misdemeanor alleging he stole campaign donations, used his job to obtain interest-free loans and solicited money from employees. He has been sheriff of the north Alabama county for about 36 years.

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