These are tense times for former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca as jurors are scheduled to resume deliberations Tuesday in a federal corruption trial over allegations he authorized a conspiracy to thwart a federal probe into civil rights abuses in the county’s jails.
After hearing closing arguments Monday, the jury at the new federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles spent almost three hours in discussions before going home for the day. The panel will resume deliberations at 8 a.m. Tuesday. If they do not reach a verdict, they will conclude their work at 3:30 p.m. and return Wednesday morning.
Baca is accused of conspiring to commit, and committing, obstruction of justice from August to September 2011, and making false statements to the federal government in April 2013. Prosecutors contend Baca lied to the FBI about his knowledge of department efforts to subvert a federal probe into corruption and inmate abuse in the jail system.
The conspiracy count carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. The obstruction count carries a maximum of 10 years.
Baca faces a third count of making false statements to federal investigators, which is to be the subject of a second trial. That charge carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in federal prison.
In closing arguments, a prosecutor told jurors that Baca “authorized and condoned” the conspiracy, but the defense threw blame on Baca’s former second-in-command.
In his summation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the six-man, six-woman jury that during Baca’s 16 years as sheriff, he “abused the power given to him by the people of Los Angeles County” by ignoring evidence of brutality against jail inmates and working to ensure “dirty deputies” were not brought to justice.
“He wanted to ensure that no outside law enforcement would police the jails,” Fox said.
During nearly two weeks of trial, jurors heard accusations that the retired lawman was the “heartbeat” of the sheriff department’s response to the federal grand jury probe. Defense attorney Nathan Hochman countered that it was former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka who was to blame for the department’s actions.
The then-sheriff “was not the driving force,” Hochman said, telling jurors that Baca had no idea that Tanaka was running things. Tanaka was sentenced to five years in prison and is expected to begin serving his time next month.
Hochman told the jury that the government had “completely failed” to prove its case and had included graphic testimony of jail violence “to poison your mind” against his client.
Baca, 74, listened intently, an impassive expression on his face during about four hours of attorneys’ closing arguments.
Prosecutors rested their case on Thursday, and the defense called a parade of witnesses Friday — including former district attorneys Ira Reiner and Steve Cooley — to speak on his behalf. Baca was not called to the stand.
The judge split the trial into two parts after he agreed to allow testimony by an expert on dementia — but only as it relates to the false- statements charge. Anderson agreed to hold a separate trial on those counts so the jury could hear the medical testimony. Baca is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
The charges focus on a period of time five years ago when sheriff’s deputies based at the Men’s Central Jail stumbled upon the FBI’s secret probe of alleged civil rights abuses and unjustified beatings of inmates within jail walls.
After guards discovered that inmate Anthony Brown was secretly working as an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators. They also went to the home of an FBI agent and threatened her with arrest.
Leah Tanner, the case agent on the FBI’s civil rights investigation into excessive force and corruption among jail deputies, testified that on Sept. 26, 2011, two sheriff’s investigators confronted her in the driveway leading into her apartment and told her that they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest.
Prosecutors contend Baca so resented the federal government’s probe that he attempted to force the FBI to back down by illegally having deputies confront Tanner.
—City News Service
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