LOS ANGELES (CN) — When a federal judge last year declared a mistrial in the obstruction case of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca the government faced a choice: Drop the charges and pursue a remaining charge of lying to prosecutors, or ask the court to retry the former lawman.
Baca almost won acquittal in December when 11 of 12 jurors voted in his favor. But the government asked a judge to order the second trial on charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice and throw into the mix the count of making a false statement — a charge prosecutors initially planned to try separately.
In so doing, prosecutors sought to eliminate the most slender of advantages that might result in a jury ruling in the 74-year-old’s favor.
First, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox persuaded U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson to strip Baca of his sheriff’s star lapel pin. He had worn the small ceremonial badge throughout preliminary hearings and the first trial. Fox argued that it prejudiced the government’s case and Anderson agreed, also barring star-shaped cufflinks that prosecutors spotted for the first time at a pretrial hearing.
In a bigger blow, Anderson ruled that jurors cannot hear expert testimony about Baca’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The defense sought to introduce evidence that Baca was cognitively impaired in April 2013 when, according to the government, he lied to prosecutors.
Baca faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of conspiring to obstruct an FBI investigation of jailhouse abuses and lying to prosecutors. A jury last year convicted his closest aide during the time of the conspiracy, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, 58. He is serving a five-year prison sentence in Florence, California.
In his opening argument at the first trial, Fox called Baca the ringleader or “heartbeat” of the conspiracy to obstruct. But Fox changed tack during opening arguments this time around, framing Tanaka and Baca almost as partners in crime and emphasizing their close, “father-son” relationship. The evidence will show Baca coordinated the effort to obstruct the FBI, Fox said in a toned-down opening that relied more heavily on Baca’s recorded statements from the 2013 interview with the FBI.
The government accuses Baca of conspiring with Tanaka and their underlings to hide inmate-informant Anthony Brown from the FBI to prevent him from testifying before a federal grand jury in the summer of 2011.
The Sheriff’s Department discovered the FBI was running a covert operation in the jails after a deputy took a bribe to smuggle in a cellphone to Brown. Officials later found it hidden in a Doritos bag among the inmate’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, including the threatened arrest of FBI Agent Leah Marx.
Marx, now Leah Tanner, was on the stand Monday as the government neared the end of its case.
A key witness for the government was former Sheriff’s Capt. William “Tom” Carey, another disgraced deputy whom a jury convicted for his part in the conspiracy.
Carey testified that Baca was present when officials made plans to hide Brown in the jail system by changing his name and booking number. He was also kept in the loop when Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau deputies Scott Craig and Maricela Long approached Marx outside her home and threatened her arrest: an interaction immortalized on department video and played to jurors Monday.
“He was OK with it,” Carey said on the stand last Thursday, according to the Los Angeles Times. “He didn’t tell us not to do it. His advice to us was just not to put handcuffs on her.”
Baca told prosecutors at the April 2013 meeting that he did not know about the approach until after the fact. But Carey told Fox last week that Baca “absolutely” knew about it.
Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman said that telephone and email records do little to show the sheriff’s involvement in the conspiracy. He said it was Tanaka who called the shots.
Hochman said Baca was open and direct 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, which could be 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.
If convicted, Baca faces up to five years in prison on the conspiracy charge, up to 10 years for obstruction and up to five years for making a false statement.