Attorneys defending a former Prichard official accused of stealing more than $100,000 from taxpayers are vowing to appeal a judge’s decision to throw out a guilty plea ahead of his trial.
James A. Blackman, former chief of staff to Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner, was arrested in February 2018 shortly after Gardner announced his termination for “financial irregularities.”
In court documents filed since his indictment last year, Blackman has been accused of stealing well over $100,000 both directly and through real estate transactions. He pleaded guilty to dozens of theft charges and to using his position for personal gain earlier this year and has already publicly apologized to the residents of Prichard for his actions.
Blackman’s is one of the first high-profile public corruption cases the White Collar Unit of the Mobile County District Attorney’s office has handled since it was reestablished in 2018, and with a guilty plea in hand, things seemed to be proceeding quite well for prosecutors.
However, that changed when Assistant District Attorney Clay Rossi gave notice the state intended to present aggravating factors for the court to consider when sentencing Blackman.
A judge can consider those aggravators when determining whether a harsher sentence is appropriate. Rossi wanted the court to factor in things like Blackman’s role as a public servant at the time his crimes occurred and the high degree of sophistication they involved. It’s a common move for prosecutors, but it was made after Blackman’s plea had already been accepted.
Procedurally, the defense objected, claiming Alabama’s sentencing guidelines require the state to give notice at least “seven days before trial.” Because Blackman pleaded guilty and there wasn’t going to be a trial, his attorneys say that notice should have been given before he pleaded.
Johnathan Friedlander, one of the attorneys representing Blackman, said aggravators could make a big difference in how much time his client spends in prison, if any at all.
“We believe a guideline sentence — without aggravating factors — would provide for probation due to the fact that he has no criminal history,” Friedlander said. “Constitutionally, you’d have to give notice of your intent to argue aggravators before the plea agreement. It’s not on the lawyer to tell his client the maximum and minimum sentences, it’s on the court.”
If aggravating factors were considered, Friendlander said it could result in a much harsher sentence than what Blackman considered when he pleaded guilty, adding that, he couldn’t have voluntarily entered a guilty plea without knowing the extent of his possible punishment.
Reached by Lagniappe, Rossi said he wasn’t able to comment on the pending case, though he did direct questions to the state’s original motion to introduce aggravating factors.
In the document, Rossi notes exceptions to the seven-day rule the defense is citing in its objections. He also wrote that Blackman’s case was not typical because he unexpectedly pleaded guilty during a status conference, not as a result or a deal or a plea agreement with the state.
Blackman’s attorneys filed a motion seeking to have the state’s request set aside, which Circuit Judge James Patterson technically granted. However, in the same order, he moved to set aside Blackman’s original guilty plea entirely.
Patterson found that, because Blackman didn’t know the extent of his possible sentence at the time he pleaded guilty, he couldn’t have done so “freely, voluntarily and knowingly.” It was a surprise to Friedlander, who maintains Patterson has no authority to set aside Blackman’s guilty plea when the defense never “asked or otherwise intended” that to happen.
“All of the case law I’ve found that deals with withdrawing a guilty plea says the court has to allow a defendant to do it to correct a manifest injustice, but I don’t know of any case where the court has just set a guilty plea aside on its own,” Friedlander told Lagniappe. “We don’t subscribe to the theory that this [decision] is protecting Mr. Blackman’s interest in any way.”
To the contrary, Friedlander argued that entering another guilty plea would give the State another “bite at the apple” and could lead to a tougher sentence than what was outlined in the original guilty plea Patterson threw out.
“We also understand that the Court may believe that a harsher sentence is warranted than that which is allowed by the guidelines in this case,” he wrote in an April. “However, because of the state’s failure to give timely notice of intent to prove aggravating factors, the relevant case law makes it clear that the court’s hands are tied.”
So far, Patterson has not changed course on his decision to set the guilty plea aside.
In fact, after Blackman’s defense team refused to enter a new guilty plea, he proceeded to set a date for a jury trial in November. If the case were to actually proceed to that stage, Blackman would be going on trial for charges he’s already publicly admitted to committing.
In the meantime, Friedlander says the defense plans to appeal Patterson’s decision to throw out the original guilty plea to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals — a process he says will drag the case out, cost more money and delay Blackman’s ability to start paying restitution.
“Now, Mr. Blackman is going to spend a lot of money taking this up on appeal when he could be paying back the citizens of Prichard,” he added.
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