LOS ANGELES (AP) — Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca went on trial on federal corruption charges Friday stripped of a ceremonial badge and unable to present a defense that might have won him sympathy if jurors knew he was in the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease.
Instead, his lawyer dropped only a hint of what he couldn’t say as he attacked the obstruction of justice and lying charges as an outgrowth of a rookie FBI investigation riddled with blunders.
Defense lawyer Nathan Hochman emphasized that Baca was 71 at the time he allegedly lied to federal authorities in 2013 about his role in the 2011 effort to stymie the FBI probe into guards who savagely beat inmates in the jails he ran and deputies who smuggled contraband to prisoners.
“Sheriff Baca did not lie, hide, conceal what happened 20 months before, but explained it to the best of his memory,” Hochman said, putting additional emphasis on that final word.
Baca, now 74, is facing a retrial on charges that he conspired with underlings and obstructed justice in the investigation of civil abuses in the nation’s largest jail system. Jurors in December deadlocked 11-1 to acquit him on those charges.
He was to face a separate trial on a lying charge, but prosecutors have added that count to the other two charges in the retrial.
The two cases were severed when Judge Percy Anderson said evidence of Baca’s diagnosis was irrelevant to the 2011 conspiracy and could cause jurors to sympathize with him and harm the prosecution case. Anderson said Alzheimer’s might be relevant to the lying charge because a psychiatrist said Baca’s memory could have been impaired when he told prosecutors in 2013 he was unaware of actions taken by deputies to thwart the FBI investigation.
Anderson suggested prosecutors seek separate trials and they went forward in the first trial with the obstruction and conspiracy charges. After the mistrial was declared, prosecutors said they would take their chances and face consequences if jurors sympathized with Baca because of his condition.
However, Anderson has now barred that evidence, ruling it was speculative and a waste of time. Anderson also ordered Baca not to wear a ceremonial sheriff’s badge on his lapel that he wore during the first trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told jurors in his opening that Baca had been atop the conspiracy to derail the investigation after guards discovered that an inmate with a contraband cellphone was acting as an FBI informant. An undercover FBI agent had bribed a jail guard to give the phone to the inmate so he could stay in touch with the FBI and shoot photos and video of beatings.
Fox said Baca had failed in his role to bring criminal conduct to light and instead concealed it in an elaborate scheme to hide the jail informant from his handlers.
“Mr. Baca viewed this as a chess match,” Fox said. “He was trying to move pieces to get the federal government to back down.”
Baca headed the department for more than 15 years before resigning abruptly in 2014 as indictments targeted underlings with taking bribes, attacking inmates and falsifying reports.
The scheme unfolded in August and September 2011 as sheriff’s brass scrambled to find out about the scope of the FBI investigation. What had been a probe targeting jail deputies blossomed into a more sweeping corruption investigation that led all the way to the top of the department.
Baca’s second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, was one of nine people convicted on obstruction-related charges.
Tanaka was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Another 11 members of the department were convicted of various other charges, including beatings, falsifying reports and taking bribes.
Baca managed to escape charges until a year ago, when he pleaded guilty to a single count of making false statements to federal authorities.
He backed out of the plea deal after a judge rejected a sentence of no more than six months as too lenient. He was then indicted on the more serious obstruction charges.
Jurors were not told about the withdrawn guilty plea.