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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge Nixes Baca’s Bid for New Venue & Prosecutor

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge on Monday rejected former LA County Sheriff Leroy Baca's bid to move his obstruction trial to another court and replace the prosecutor who has led several related cases against department officials.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson denied the motions at an afternoon hearing in his downtown courtroom, ruling that Baca had failed to show a "compelling need" to disqualify lead assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox.

During argument, Anderson used a football analogy to make his point, comparing Fox to New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady.

"This is sort of like a motion the coach of the Buffalo Bills would make to disqualify Tom Brady," Anderson said to laughter in the courtroom.

Anderson, who has presided over several high-profile cases involving sheriff's officials obstruction of an FBI investigation into civil rights abuses at county jails, also ruled against a change of venue.

The judge said the pool of jurors is large and diverse enough in the Western Division of the Central District of California for a panel of 12 impartial jurors to be found, even with media coverage of the case.

Reporting of Baca's case had not inspired an outpouring of public passion that would create a presumption of prejudice, Anderson said.

Baca has said he would not get a fair trial on conspiracy and obstruction charges in Anderson's courtroom because the judge is already convinced of his guilt. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright's said Baca's concerns are unfounded and declined the motion.

The retired official is accused of participating in a conspiracy to hide informant 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 had ended up with Brown. The following month, Baca instructed officials to "do everything but put handcuffs" on FBI agent Leah Marx, who was investigating the case, the government says.

Earlier this year, Baca agreed to plead guilty to lying to prosecutors in April 2013 about his awareness of the conspiracy and his knowledge that his officials were going to approach Marx. But Baca withdrew his guilty plea after Anderson said at a July 18 sentencing that the government's recommendation of a six-month sentence was too lenient.

With a trial looming in December, Baca had asked Anderson to move proceedings to another courthouse, arguing he was prejudiced by media coverage. He suggested a trial in another district, or in Riverside County or Orange County.

The government responded in an Oct. 10 response that a move is not justified.

"While defendant's case has received publicity, the press coverage has not 'utterly corrupted' the trial atmosphere or interfered with defendant's right to a fair and impartial jury," Fox wrote in the filing.

Baca also wanted the court to recuse Fox, who was present at the April 2013 interview and whom the retired official intends to call as a witness during the trial.

But Anderson said during the hearing that there are five other witnesses from the meeting who could testify during the trial, including FBI agents, assistant U.S. Attorneys, and Baca's former attorneys.

In court papers, Fox said that Baca failed to show how only the prosecutor alone could offer the testimony he needs.

"Defendant's motion is nothing more than an attempt to have the government's lead attorney removed from the trial because defendant thinks he has a better chance to succeed without [assistant U.S. Attorney] Fox prosecuting him," the filing states.

If a federal jury finds Baca guilty, he faces a maximum of five years in prison on the conspiracy charge, 10 years for obstruction and up to five years in prison for making a false statement.

Twenty current or former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials were convicted in connection with the crimes, according to federal prosecutors.

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