Jury selection began Wednesday for the second trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on federal corruption charges for allegedly conspiring to obstruct an FBI probe into possible abuse of inmates in the county jail system.
Two groups of about 125 potential panelists each began going through early stages of the selection process in the downtown federal courthouse. Jury selection, which marks the start of a trial, could last the rest of the week.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said jurors would remain anonymous due to the media attention the trial is expected to draw and to lessen the chance that they are contacted during the proceedings.
Baca, 74, was tried in December on counts of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, but jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting the former sheriff. Anderson then declared a mistrial.
At his re-trial — expected to take about two weeks — the former sheriff will also face a third felony count of lying to federal officials.
The charges partly stem from a 2011 incident in which two sheriff’s investigators confronted an FBI agent involved in the jail probe in the driveway leading into her apartment and falsely told her they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest.
The case against Baca focuses on a period of time when sheriff’s deputies based at the Men’s Central Jail stumbled upon a secret FBI probe of alleged civil rights abuses and unjustified beatings of inmates within jail walls.
Prosecutors contend Baca so resented the federal government’s jails probe that he attempted to force the FBI to back down by illegally having deputies confront the agent at her apartment. The prosecution also alleges that Baca ignored years of complaints about excessive force used illegally against jail inmates in county facilities managed by the Sheriff’s Department.
The third count — making false statements — contends that Baca lied to the FBI in April 2013 about his knowledge of department efforts to subvert a federal probe into corruption and inmate abuse in the jail system.
Baca maintains he had no knowledge of what was being done in his name by staff, including former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Tanaka is serving a five- year prison term for his conviction on obstruction of justice charges similar to those Baca faces. Eight other former deputies were convicted and are serving time in the case.
In a flurry of pretrial motions, Anderson ruled that jurors will not be allowed to hear medical testimony that Baca was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease years ago, calling such proposed testimony a “waste of time.”
Baca’s lawyers had asked the judge to allow psychiatrist Dr. James Spar to link Baca’s alleged criminal actions to a years-later diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment.
“Evidence linking defendant’s current diagnosis to the charges is entirely speculative and inadmissible,” the judge wrote, adding that Spar’s testimony “would only serve to confuse the jury.”
Baca’s lawyers have been pushing to have jurors hear about their client’s mental state in 2011 and 2013.
However, “the low probative value of the evidence is substantially outweighed by the dangers of unfair prejudice, including the sympathy the evidence might create for the defendant, confusion of issues, misleading the jury, and waste of time,” Anderson concluded.
Baca’s attorneys contend that the ex-sheriff is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and suffered some cognitive impairment as much as six years ago.
—City News Service