LOS ANGELES (CN) – Prosecutors in former LA County sheriff Lee Baca’s obstruction trial said Monday it’s clear the retired sheriff intended to obstruct an FBI investigation into abuses in the jail and said jurors should reject the claim his second-in-command headed the conspiracy.
Calling the brutality in the jails “years in the making,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox urged jurors to use their common sense and find Baca guilty of obstruction and conspiracy to obstruct a federal civil rights investigation into Men’s Central and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
“He’s guilty,” Fox said during his rebuttal argument on Monday afternoon. “It’s that simple.”
Baca is accused of conspiring to hide inmate-informant Anthony Brown from the FBI, to prevent his testifying before a federal grand jury after jailers discovered an agency phone had been smuggled into Men’s Central Jail by deputy Gilbert Michel.
Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman urged the six men and women of the jury to acquit his client, who looked on calmly dressed in black suit, white shirt and black and yellow striped tie. Hochman pointed to the government’s failure to show through documents, recordings, emails and phone records that Baca intended to obstruct the FBI or was a coconspirator in the scheme.
Of 100 emails Baca only features in two, he said, and phone records showing calls between Baca and his underlings during the six weeks of the conspiracy, which ran from August and September 2011, were inconclusive.
“There’s no evidence of what was said during these phone calls,” Hochman said.
The attorney told the jury that Baca was angry that FBI agents had introduced a phone into the jails because inmates can use phones to arrange hits on witnesses or smuggle drugs. But he was always “open, direct and transparent" with the federal government, Hochman said.
In his closing argument, Hochman said the testimony of former U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, now a sitting federal judge, had captured the “essence of this case.” On the stand, Birotte had likened his job to that of a referee, stating that he believed his job was to “keep the children in the sandbox from fighting all the time.”
Hochman took that description and ran with it, describing Birotte as the “older brother” and Baca and FBI assistant director Steve Martinez as the “younger brothers” who were squabbling about the nature of the federal agency’s investigation into jailhouse abuses but ended up as “brothers in arms” after Baca had calmed down.
Baca’s attorney took aim at the investigation, calling lead FBI investigator Leah Marx a “rookie” who had enlisted Brown, a violent felon, to work as an informant. The FBI had made a “reckless” decision by allowing a cellphone into the jails – a “dangerous weapon” that can be used to arrange hits or smuggle drugs, he said.
“For him, it was a line in the sand,” Hochman said of Baca. “This was the FBI creating this situation and this was what Sheriff Baca was reacting to.”
Baca was only concerned about Brown’s safety because he feared the inmate-informant would be exposed a “snitch” for the federal government, Hochman said.
It was his second-in-command, convicted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who gave the orders and orchestrated the scheme because of his own ambitions to head the department. He kept his boss in the dark and conspired against him, Hochman said.
Did the government prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Baca was the leader of the conspiracy? “Not a chance,” Hochman said.
But during his rebuttal, Fox said that Baca had known what he was doing when he put Tanaka in charge. The testimony of witnesses close to the conspiracy showed that Baca was never in the dark about what was going on, including the threatened arrest of Marx by two deputies.
“As much as he tried to run from Mr. Tanaka – at this point, he can’t,” Fox said.
Fox called Baca’s attempts to weaponize the phone “fear-mongering,” noting that there is no evidence that it had been used to commit any crime. He said the presence of a smuggled cellphone was not an unusual occurrence in the jail system. If Baca was truly concerned about Brown’s safety he could have transferred him to state or federal authorities, Fox said.
“This wasn’t about safety. This was about hiding him from the federal grand jury,” Fox said.
After closing arguments, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson instructed the jury, which began to deliberate Monday afternoon.
If convicted, Baca faces a maximum of five years in prison on the conspiracy charge and 10 years for obstruction. He faces a second trial on a charge of making a false statement to prosecutors in 2013.