LOS ANGELES (CN) — Opening arguments began Friday afternoon in the second trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca, who faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of conspiring to obstruct an FBI investigation of jailhouse abuses and lying to prosecutors.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson declared a mistrial in Baca’s first obstruction trial just before Christmas, after a jury deadlocked after almost four days of deliberations. The retired lawman almost won acquittal after jurors voted 11-1 in his favor.
Jury selection in the second trial began last week and concluded Friday.
The government accuses Baca of conspiring in the summer of 2011 to hide inmate-informant Anthony Brown from the FBI to prevent him from testifying before a federal grand jury. Jailers cracked open the investigation after discovering a jailer smuggled in an FBI phone which officials later found hidden in a Doritos bag among Brown’s belongings.
Baca faces an additional count in the second trial of lying to prosecutors at an April 2013 meeting, by denying knowledge of the conspiracy and the threatened arrest of FBI Agent Leah Marx by two sheriff’s deputies.
At the trial last year, prosecutor Brandon Fox painted Baca as an official who believed his department was above the law and called him the heartbeat of the conspiracy to obstruct investigators.
Fox sent a similar message to jurors during opening arguments Friday afternoon, but leaned more on Baca’s recorded interviews.
Fox introduced recorded statements Baca made during the interview with prosecutors and in a television appearance on “Good Day, L.A.,” where he accused the FBI of illegally smuggling the phone into the jail.
“An abuse of power in order to obstruct justice and lies to conceal his crimes,” Fox told the jury as he began.
He said Baca called the shots along with his second-in-command, convicted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, with whom he had a “father-son” relationship.
“Mr. Baca viewed this as a chess match,” Fox said, adding that “overwhelming evidence,” including witness testimony and department records, would show Baca coordinated the effort to obstruct investigators.
But Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman said that phone and email records offer scant evidence of the sheriff’s involvement in the conspiracy.
He said Baca was open with investigators and his agenda was not to obstruct the FBI but to protect the security of the jail and safety of inmates when he learned that a cellphone, sometimes used by inmates to plot escapes, murders or drug deals, was inside Men’s Central Jail.
“Carrying out that agenda was not an abuse of power,” Hochman said.
Baca was with the Sheriff’s Department for 48 years. The obstruction scheme allegedly took place over a six-week period in August and September of 2011.
Of those six weeks, the government would put on three hours of evidence involving Baca, the defense attorney said. Of the 600 questions that prosecutors asked during the April 2013 interview, the government has identified four false responses during a 4½-hour interview. Hochman said that amounts to 45 seconds of evidence.
“Forty-five seconds is what you will be asked to measure Sheriff Baca’s answers against,” Hochman said.
If convicted, Baca faces up to five years in prison on the conspiracy charge, 10 years for obstruction and up to five years for making a false statement.