Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted Wednesday of three federal charges for orchestrating a scheme to thwart an FBI investigation into inmate mistreatment in the jails he ran and of lying to the bureau.
Jurors reached the verdict this afternoon, in their second full day of deliberations in Baca’s retrial. The eight-man, four-woman jury got the case Monday afternoon after hearing nine days of testimony involving more than a dozen witnesses.
Baca was convicted of all three counts with which he was charged — obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and making false statements to the FBI — and faces up to 20 years in federal prison, according to prosecutors.
The 74-year-old retired lawman was tried in December on the first two counts, and prosecutors had planned a second trial on the lying count. But a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting the former sheriff, and the judge combined all three counts in the retrial, which
began Feb. 22 with jury selection.
The charges partly stemmed from a 2011 incident in which two sheriff’s investigators confronted an FBI agent in the driveway leading into her apartment and falsely told her they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest. Baca denied having advance knowledge of the illegal attempt to intimidate the agent.
Nine former sheriff’s officials, including Baca’s top deputy, Paul Tanaka, have been convicted in the case.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox used a chess analogy, calling Baca “a king” who used his subordinates as chess pieces in a tit-for-tat between the Sheriff’s Department and the FBI.
“The pawns and bishops go out to attack and do all the dirty work” Fox said, adding that Baca was now “trying to disown everything that happened.”
Nathan Hochman, Baca’s lawyer, countered that there was no chess game.
“This wasn’t even a checkers game,” he said.
Hochman repeatedly pinned blame for the obstruction on Tanaka, who has already been convicted and is serving five years in federal prison.
Hochman insisted Baca did nothing to subvert the probe, but he actually “wanted to join the federal investigation.”
However, a second prosecutor insisted Baca was not only guilty, but was especially culpable given his decades of experience in law enforcement.
“That experience is damning — not a positive — when you talk about committing these crimes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Rhodes told the jury as she summed up the government’s case.
Rhodes walked the jury through a timeline of the prosecution’s case, saying Baca orchestrated a conspiracy to derail the FBI probe into mistreatment of inmates at jails managed by the sheriff’s department, then lied to federal investigators about his involvement.
Baca “ran this conspiracy the same way he ran this department,” Rhodes said, telling jurors the ex-sheriff appointed Tanaka to oversee the scheme.
At the same time, “the sheriff was having multiple briefings because he wanted to know every little thing that was going on,” the prosecutor said.
Baca ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years before he retired in 2014 amid allegations of widespread abuse of inmates’ civil rights.
The defense contends that the ex-sheriff is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and suffered some cognitive impairment as long as six years ago. However, the judge barred Hochman from presenting medical testimony during the retrial.
A federal judge has ordered a psychological examination of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to determine if he suffers from any mental impairment that would prevent him from understanding the corruption charges against him or assisting in his own defense, according to court papers obtained Monday.
In his order for a Nov. 21 hearing, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson ruled that a mental competency exam — conducted by a licensed, court-approved doctor — must take place no later than Sept. 30, followed by the preparation of a report describing whether Baca is suffering from a mental issue and, if so, its history, current symptoms and diagnosis or prognosis.
The tests should signal whether Baca is “mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense,” Anderson wrote in the Friday order.
In a separate court filing last week, government prosecutors asked Anderson to determine whether Baca is fit to stand trial. The motion came after Baca’s attorney indicated he would employ a “mental defect” defense based on a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox wrote that while he believes Baca is competent, he wants a definitive ruling to alleviate any doubt prior to the December trial.
Baca is charged with conspiring to obstruct justice, obstructing justice and lying to the federal government, stemming from his alleged response in 2011 to a covert FBI investigation into corruption and brutality by guards at Men’s Central Jail.
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman says the 74-year-old ex-lawman is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was impaired by the illness at the time of the charged offenses five years ago.
Hochman told the judge last week he planned to introduce evidence of a mental defect long plaguing his client. Anderson responded: “You mean to say people who suffer from Alzheimer’s don’t know right from wrong?”
Hochman also said he may make an attempt to have the trial moved out of Los Angeles County, asserting that widespread publicity tainted the jury pool.
In addition, the attorney said Baca’s earlier guilty plea — which was withdrawn — to a false statements charge was a “unique fact” that was also widely publicized to the detriment of his client.
At his Aug. 12 arraignment, Baca told Anderson he suffered from periods of “cloudiness in my brain” due to Alzheimer’s disease, but the judge found him capable of entering a plea.
The ex-sheriff backed out of the earlier plea deal on the lying count, which called for Baca to serve no more than six months in prison, after Anderson rejected the agreement as too lenient. If Baca had not withdrawn from the plea, he could have been sentenced to up to five years behind bars.
He was subsequently indicted on the new charges, and he could face up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of all counts, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — is accused of participating in a wide-ranging conspiracy to derail the FBI’s probe of corruption and brutality in county jails.
After jail guards discovered that an inmate, Anthony Brown, was an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators. They also went to the home of an FBI agent and threatened her with arrest.
Baca claims he knew nothing of the plan and that his former second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, was in charge of the sheriff department’s response.
Ten ex-sheriff’s officials — including Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case.
Tanaka, who alleges his former boss ordered the response to the discovery of the jails probe, was sentenced by Anderson to five years in prison, but is free until Oct. 3 pending appeal.
Baca had initially pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to investigators about his knowledge of the plan to threaten the FBI agent. That false statements count is one of the three counts Baca is now facing.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
A federal appellate panel recently upheld the convictions of seven former sheriff’s department officials convicted in the conspiracy.