For the second time in as many weeks, the Alabama Supreme Court has reversed a decision made by Mobile Circuit Judge Jim Patterson — this time ordering him to reinstate a guilty plea he threw out despite significant objections from the defendant who entered it.
As Lagniappe reported, Patterson also had a previous ruling overturned last week after justices on the state’s highest court unanimously held he “illegally detained” a murder suspect for several months in 2019 after he decided of his own volition to revoke a defendant’s bail without sufficient cause.
This most recent ruling involves the case against James A. Blackman, the former chief of staff to Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner who has admitted stealing nearly $200,000 from the city while he held his position between 2016 and 2018. Blackman’s case is one of the first high-profile public corruption cases handled by the recently reestablished white collar unit of the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office.
Blackman, who publicly apologized for stealing from the city almost immediately after his arrest, pleaded guilty early on in the process, but when state prosecutors tried to present aggravating factors and asked the court to consider a harsher sentence for Blackman, his attorneys objected on procedural grounds.
A judge can consider aggravating factors when determining an appropriate sentence, and in Blackman’s case, Assistant District Attorney Clay Rossi wanted the court to consider Blackman’s role as a public servant and the high degree of sophistication involved in his crimes as reasons for a longer sentence. Given his lack of criminal history, Blackman likely wouldn’t have faced any jail time otherwise.
However, Blackman’s attorney, Jonathan Friedlander, argued that prosecutors are required to give notice at least “seven days before trial” if they plan to ask the court to consider aggravating factors, and because Blackman’s case wasn’t going to trial, that notice should have been given before his plea.
He accused prosecutors of trying for “another bite at the apple” after failing to provide a timely notice of their intent to prove aggravating factors. He argued that, without that knowledge, Blackman’s plea agreement was accepted without him understanding the extent of his potential punishment.
While Patterson seemed to agree with the basic concept, he then took it upon himself to throw out Blackman’s previous guilty plea, arguing that he did so in Blackman’s best interest. Friedlander strongly objected to the idea that putting his client at risk of prison time was in his best interest.
After Patterson upheld his decision to throw out the guilty plea and set a new trial date, Friedlander appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, arguing the decision to move forward with a trial for charges Blackman already pleaded guilty to violated his constitutional protection against double jeopardy.
In an 8-1 decision last week, the high court agreed. While Patterson described his decisions to throw out Blackman’s guilty plea as a “do-over, like kids used to do on the play yard,” a majority of justices held that only the defendant who enters a guilty plea has the authority to withdraw it once it’s accepted.
“Whether Blackman was appropriately advised of the potential minimum and maximum sentences for his convictions, whether his guilty plea was truly voluntarily entered, and whether the state provided adequate notice of its intent to prove aggravating factors at sentencing are not questions currently before this court,” the majority opinion reads. “The trial court lacked the authority to withdraw Blackman’s guilty plea on its own motion. No provision for such a procedure exists in the law. The decision whether to withdraw the guilty plea and to proceed to trial was a decision only Blackman was entitled to make.”
In a statement to Lagniappe this week, Friedlander said he was “extremely pleased” with the court’s decision to overturn what he believed was a violation of “clearly established” law. Yet, he also expressed some frustration at the state continuing to drag this case out at his client’s expense.
“This ruling reinforces the principle that even the DA’s office must follow the law. It does not get a ‘do-over’ simply because its own blunder prevents it from getting the sentence it wants,” he said. “Unfortunately, the state’s intransigence in fighting this inevitable ruling, as well as its referral of the case to federal authorities when it realized its untenable position, have forced Mr. Blackman to spend money on additional attorney fees that should have been going to repay the citizens of Prichard.”
Blackman was indicted on similar federal charges less than a month after his state case was stayed by the Alabama Supreme Court. Friedlander believes state prosecutors referred the case to federal authorities after they realized Blackman’s previous guilty plea was likely to be reinstated.
Lagniappe reached out to the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office seeking comments on those allegations as well as the high court’s recent decision to overturn Patterson’s ruling but did not receive a response. However, District Attorney Ashley Rich denied similar claims after Blackman pleaded guilty to two of his federal charges in January, arguing the federal and state cases may be based on similar conduct, but they aren’t related.
It should be noted that former Prichard City Clerk Kim Green was also indicted on state and federal charges for similar allegations of embezzlement and public corruption. Still, Friedlander said the timing of the federal charges — nearly two years after Blackman was arrested on state charges — seems suspect.
“Her denial defies common sense,” he told Lagniappe via email. “There is simply no way that the U.S. Attorney’s Office would wait two years to bring an indictment, and then conveniently do it right after the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling against the state, unless Mrs. Rich asked them to.”
After pleading to theft concerning programs receiving federal funds and money laundering, Blackman is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in August. Prosecutors have previously indicated they’ll ask for a sentence at the low end of federal guidelines — around 21 months.
Patterson has yet to set a date for a sentencing hearing in Blackman’s state case.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).