LOS ANGELES (CN) — Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca’s medical expert used “junk science” to claim Baca had a cognitive impairment when he made allegedly false statements to prosecutors in 2013, federal prosecutors said at a Tuesday hearing.
At a mental competency hearing in U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson’s shiny new courtroom on West First Street, prosecutor Brandon Fox accused Baca’s expert Dr. James Spar of “cherry-picking” statements to support his assertion, without medical or scientific evidence, that Baca was in the preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s disease.
Fox said there was “no question” the government would be prejudiced if Spar is allowed to testify at Baca’s obstruction trial in early December, because Spar’s testimony lacked “credibility” and “methodology.”
“This is pure speculation,” Fox said. “As it is, it’s junk science.”
Prosecutors submitted a motion to exclude Spar as an expert witness on Nov. 7.
Baca this year agreed to plead guilty to lying to prosecutors in April 2013 about his awareness of a conspiracy to obstruct an FBI investigation into excessive force at the Men’s Central Jail.
But Baca withdrew his guilty plea after Judge Anderson said at a July 18 sentencing that the government’s recommendation of a six-month sentence was too lenient.
During an extended exchange Tuesday, Anderson repeatedly pressed Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman to cite scientific or “objective” tests that would show that Baca was suffering an impairment one year before he was diagnosed, in May 2014.
Hochman acknowledged there were no such tests in this case, but said it is “undisputed” that the preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s can go back 10 years.
“Medicine is not 100 percent certain, your honor,” Hochman said, adding that the government could cross-examine the expert to test his claims.
Seated beside his other attorney, Tinos Diamantatos, Baca remained deadpan for much of the hearing, slouching in his seat with his hands clasped.
In a second motion, to exclude hearsay, the government asked the court to bar extended excerpts of an audio interview between Baca and prosecutors at the 2013 meeting.
The government called the statements “self-serving.” Prosecutor Lizabeth Rhodes said their inclusion would be designed to elicit sympathy from jurors and that the abbreviated recordings would not mislead jurors.
Attorneys for Baca, 74, who retired in January 2014, say the jury needs to hear 10 or 11 extended excerpts to understand the context of his answers.
Anderson took both motions under submission. He ruled last week that Baca was competent to stand trial, after receiving the filing of a joint stipulation.
Baca is accused of conspiring to hide informant-inmate Anthony Brown from investigators after jailers discovered an FBI phone was smuggled into Men’s Central Jail by Deputy Gilbert Michel.
In August 2011, Baca asked his second-in-command, convicted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, to investigate how the phone ended up with Brown. The next month, Baca instructed officials to “do everything but put handcuffs” on FBI Agent Leah Marx, who was investigating the case, the government says.
At the meeting with prosecutors, Baca told Fox and other prosecutors that he did not know the FBI was investigating the jails, that he was not involved in any effort to keep agents away from Brown, and that he knew nothing about a plan to approach Marx.
If a federal jury finds Baca guilty, he 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.
Twenty current or former sheriff’s officials have been convicted in the case.
Attorney Kelli Sager spoke briefly to note her objection to a government subpoena for the testimony of journalist Robert Faturechi, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote on abuse in the jail system while Baca was sheriff.
Sager asked the court to quash the subpoena because of the reporter’s privilege under the First Amendment. The government wants to ask Faterechi about a September 2011 article about Baca and an interview he gave five years later to radio station KCRW.
The estimated two- to three-week trial is set for Dec. 6.