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Federal prosecutors to retry ex-LA Sheriff Lee Baca in obstruction of justice case

Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that they will retry former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca following a recent mistrial in which a jury nearly cleared Baca of obstructing an FBI investigation into the county's jails.

The judge in the case also granted a request by the U.S. attorney's office to add to the trial the charge of making false statements to federal authorities. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson previously split that charge from the obstruction and conspiracy charges Baca faced at trial last month.

During the two-week trial, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office tried to convince jurors that Baca had played a central role in a scheme carried out by a group of subordinates to thwart an FBI investigation into abuses and corruption by sheriff's deputies working as jailers. Baca's lawyers countered he had been unaware of the ploy unfolding beneath him.

The panel deliberated for days, with all but one of the 12 jurors voting to acquit Baca of obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges. After the panel announced it was deadlocked, Anderson declared the mistrial.

Although it offered only a momentary reprieve for Baca, the verdict dealt a setback for U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker and the prosecutors from her office's Public Corruption and Civil Rights section that went after the 74-year-old former sheriff.

Prior to leveling charges against Baca, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox, who heads the anti-corruption unit, had methodically worked his way through the group of rank-and-file deputies and supervisors who were accused of having roles in the obstruction effort. In all, nine people have been convicted or pleaded guilty, including former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who ran much of the sprawling agency's day-to-day operations and was accused of spearheading the campaign to derail the FBI jail probe.

At last month's trial, Fox attempted to show that Baca was the "heartbeat" of the obstruction operation and had kept abreast of the effort as it unfolded over six weeks in 2011.

Few of the government's witnesses, however, testified to direct interactions with Baca during the time of the alleged obstruction, and there was less hard evidence that implicated the former sheriff than his underlings. Jurors, except for the lone holdout, felt the case was weak and circumstantial.

Fox and Decker had tried to avoid taking Baca to trial, opting instead to strike a plea deal with him early last year that called for Baca to admit to a less serious charge of making false statements to federal investigators during an interview. In exchange, Baca would serve no more than six months in prison.

Anderson, who had handed down stiff sentences in the previous trials, rejected the deal as too lenient and made clear he intended to sentence Baca to significantly more time behind bars. Baca chose to withdraw his guilty plea and take his chances at a trial.

Along with conspiracy and obstruction, Baca, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, was also accused of making false statements, the charge to which he had pleaded guilty. In the lead-up to the trial, Baca's attorney, Nathan Hochman, announced that he planned to use Baca's deteriorating mind as a defense against the lying charge.

That led Anderson to raise concerns that jurors' view of Baca would be unduly tainted by testimony about the disease. At the judge's urging, prosecutors moved to divide the case in two and have a separate jury decide later on the false statements charge.

While the decision kept any mention of Baca's illness out of the trial, it also prevented prosecutors from making the case to jurors that Baca lied to investigators in order to cover up obstruction efforts.

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