LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca will have his appeal heard in November, more than a year after a federal jury convicted him of obstruction of justice and lying, crimes for which the ex-lawman was sentenced to three years behind bars.
A panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the appeal in Pasadena on Nov. 6. Baca, 76, remains free pending the panel’s decision.
In papers filed in January, federal prosecutors urged the panel to affirm Baca’s conviction, arguing, among other issues, that U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson was correct in barring jurors from hearing evidence of the ex-sheriff’s Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. The defense contends that the ruling could have affected Baca’s conviction for making false statements.
During the trial, Baca’s attorneys had wanted to use testimony from psychiatrist James Spar to show the jury that the former lawman’s mind may have been impaired by the disease when he committed the acts for which he was convicted. But Anderson ruled that Spar’s testimony would be “entirely speculative” and inadmissible.
Government prosecutors maintain that the judge made the right call.
“Spar’s declaration … revealed that he could provide no such evidence,” prosecutors wrote. “Based on his review of evaluations from early 2016 — three years after defendant lied about the conspiracy he had overseen 18 months earlier — Spar concluded that he could not opine as to whether defendant suffered from any mental deficiency when he lied to federal investigators in April 2013.”
Further, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “As late as a year after the defendant lied to federal investigators, a comprehensive screening at Kaiser Permanente’s Geriatric Memory Clinic revealed no impairment in his cognitive functioning.”
Spar’s testimony “would have been neither reliable nor helpful,” prosecutors wrote. As to whether Baca “was impaired at all or whether there was even a likelihood that he was impaired, Spar would have left the jury to guess,” their filing states.
Baca’s attorneys countered that Anderson’s decision to bar testimony regarding Baca’s supposed mental impairment amounts to a reversible error and is expected to argue that the appeals panel should overturn the convictions.
Baca — who has said that he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease — was sentenced in May 2017 to three years in federal prison for his conviction on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements.
Prosecutors also dispute defense arguments that Anderson erred in barring jurors from hearing evidence of Baca’s “cooperation” with both the federal probe into wrongdoing by deputies in the jail system and that the use of an anonymous jury in Baca’s trial was a mistake.
During Baca’s two trials, prosecutors described the ex-lawman as being the top figure in a multi-part conspiracy, which also involved his former right-hand man, Paul Tanaka, and eight deputies who took orders from the sheriff.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years — was first tried in December 2016 on obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice counts, and prosecutors had planned a second trial on the false statements count. But a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting the former sheriff, and Anderson combined all three counts in the retrial that ended with Baca’s conviction. He did not take the stand in either trial.
The charges stemmed from events seven years ago when a cell phone was discovered in the hands of an inmate/informant at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone to the FBI, which had been conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.
At that point, sheriff’s officials closed ranks and began an attempt to halt the formerly covert investigation by concealing the inmate-turned-informant from federal prosecutors, who had issued a summons for his grand jury appearance, prosecutors said.
Baca became sheriff in December 1998 and won re-election on several occasions. He was poised to run again in 2014, but federal indictments unsealed in December 2013, related to excessive force in the jails and obstruction of that investigation, led him to retire the following month.
In their appeal brief, Baca’s attorneys wrote that the jury should
have been allowed to consider evidence of improvements Baca made in the training of jail guards to de-escalate problems and successfully deal with violent and/or mentally ill inmates. Baca was not charged with any instances of jail brutality.
In addition to the 10 people convicted in connection with the Baca conspiracy case, 11 other now-former sheriff’s department members were also convicted of various crimes uncovered during the FBI investigation.