By Fred Shuster
City News Service
LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is seeking to introduce testimony at his forthcoming trial linking actions charged in a felony indictment to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment he received years later.
Baca’s attorneys want a jury to hear opinions from a psychiatrist, Dr. James Spar, regarding the retired lawman’s mental state in 2011 and 2013, according to court papers obtained today by City News Service.
The indictment against the former sheriff charges that he conspired to commit and committed obstruction of justice from August to September 2011and lied to the federal government in April 2013.
Federal prosecutors — in a motion to bar Spar’s proposed testimony — argue that during his 16-year tenure as sheriff, Baca “never reported any concerns about memory loss or cognitive impairment to any doctor.”
In fact, prosecutors contend, “the opposite is true. Defendant repeatedly went to the doctor and reported no issues related to cognitive functioning. Doctors who saw him from 2010 to 2013 observed and reported that he was alert and oriented to person, place and time, that there were no significant neurological findings, and that psychiatric affect was always normal,” according to the motion filed in Los Angeles federal court.
“All the while, defendant continued to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, the nation’s largest, and perform his executive tasks, including regularly testifying before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors,” a federal prosecutor wrote. “In addition, defendant planned to run for re-election in 2014.”
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson has set a Nov. 21 hearing to discuss the issue. A Dec. 6 trial date has been scheduled in the case, in which Baca faces charges that carry a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
The prosecution maintains that it was in March 2014 that Baca sought medical advice based on concerns about his cognitive functioning. Medical records from that period indicate that his chief complaint was sleep disturbance, although the defendant also complained of anxiety, depression and memory difficulties, according to the document.
Defense lawyers want Spar — who testified as an expert in dementia in a 2014 lawsuit that touched on billionaire Donald Sterling’s mental health — to tell the jury that Baca was properly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in May 2014, that he is currently in the early stages of the disease and suffers from mildly impaired cognitive function.
The physician would also apparently attempt to relate the diagnosis back to 2011-13 by suggesting that Alzheimer’s is present for “years to decades” before the earliest symptoms of cognitive deterioration appear, the motion states.
Prosecutors want Anderson to bar Spar’s testimony, which they argue is not based on reliable methodology and sufficient facts, “but instead would be confusing and prejudicial to the jury.”
In August, Baca withdrew his guilty plea to the lying charge and decided instead to take his chances at trial. Baca’s decision came after Anderson rejected a plea deal that limited the former sheriff’s prison time to a maximum of six months.
The judge said that a six-month prison term was too lenient. If Baca had not withdrawn from the plea, he could have been handed a sentence of five years behind bars on the false statements count.
The ex-sheriff was subsequently indicted on the new charges. Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
Baca claims he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that second-in-command Paul Tanaka was in charge of the operation.
Ten ex-sheriff’s officials — including Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case.
Tanaka, who alleges his former boss initiated the plan, was sentenced by Anderson to five years in prison, but is free pending appeal.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
A federal appellate panel upheld the convictions of seven former sheriff’s department officials convicted in the conspiracy.