LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal judge on Thursday declared a mistrial in the obstruction trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, after concluding the six men and six women of the jury were hopelessly deadlocked.
The jury had deliberated since Monday afternoon, weighing whether Baca obstructed an FBI investigation into civil rights abuses at two county jails.
During the trial, prosecutors presented startling examples of jailers using excessive force against inmates Men’s Central Jail, including the brutal beating and use of a stun gun on an unconscious inmate in front of an ACLU monitor.
Though the beatings provided a disturbing backdrop, Baca was not on trial for the civil rights abuses that occurred under his watch.
Instead, prosecutors said he conspired to hide inmate-informant Anthony Brown from the FBI, to prevent him from testifying before a federal grand jury. That was after jailers discovered deputy Gilbert Michel had unwittingly smuggled an FBI phone into Men’s Central Jail.
The efforts to hide Brown included changing his name, moving him around the jail and ordering deputies to prevent the FBI from interviewing him, prosecutors said.
Baca argued, however, that he was only worried about the introduction of the phone into the jail system because inmates can use phones to smuggle drugs or arrange hits.
He was always “open, direct and transparent” with the federal government, his attorney Nathan Hochman said during a lengthy closing argument on Monday.
Baca did not take the stand during the trial, which began with opening arguments on Dec. 7. Baca says that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2014 and says he was cognitively impaired at the meeting.
The former lawman, who retired in 2014 in the midst of the scandal, was responsible for close to 20,000 employees in a department that policed multiple jurisdictions in the county of 10 million people. He spent almost 50 years at the department and began his tenure as the head in 1998 and served as sheriff for 16 years.
In a sign that the government's path to a guilty verdict was in jeopardy, the jury on Tuesday asked to see department video that showed Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau sergeants Scott Craig and Maricela Long approaching the FBI’s lead investigator Leah Marx outside her home.
The jury had submitted a note asking U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson if it was lawful for the sheriff's department to approach Marx. Anderson told the jury that it was up to them to decide whether the approach demonstrated an intent to obstruct justice or was part of a lawful investigation, U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Thom Mrozek confirmed in an email.
In the video, Craig tells Marx that she is the "named suspect in a felony complaint” and that he is "in the process of swearing out a declaration for an arrest warrant."
Marx was never arrested.
The note suggested that jurors were wrestling with whether the officers' approach signaled Baca's intent to obstruct, if the approach could be considered lawful, and if Baca could be held liable for the threatened arrest.
In court papers, prosecutors stated that Baca told deputies to "do everything but put handcuffs” on Marx.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox argued during the trial that Baca was the “heartbeat” of a conspiracy to obstruct an FBI investigation into abuses in the jail, and said jurors should reject the claim Tanaka headed the conspiracy.
Calling the brutality in the jails “years in the making,” Fox urged jurors on Monday to look at the evidence and use common sense to find Baca guilty of obstruction and conspiracy to obstruct the jail investigations.
“He’s guilty,” Fox said. “It’s that simple.”
But Hochman said the government failed to show through documents, recordings, emails and phone records that Baca intended to obstruct the FBI or was a co-conspirator in the scheme.
Baca only features in two of 100 emails, he said, and phone records showing calls between Baca and his underlings during the six weeks of the conspiracy in August and September 2011 were inconclusive.
Baca’s attorney took aim at the investigation, calling lead FBI investigator 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,” he said, adding that Baca was also concerned about what would happen to Brown if he was exposed as a federal informant.
“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.”
It was 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.
During his rebuttal on Monday, Fox said 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 officers.
“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 there is no evidence it had been used to commit any crime.
“This wasn’t about safety. This was about hiding him [Brown] from the federal grand jury,” Fox said.
Fox told jurors it didn’t matter whether the FBI’s investigation was good or bad. What the evidence showed was that Baca had interfered with the investigation.
Baca faced a maximum of five years in prison on the conspiracy charge and 10 years for obstruction. Prosecutors must now decide whether to retry the former lawman.
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