LOS ANGELES — Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was sentenced May 12 to three years in prison and one year of supervised release for obstructing a federal probe into corruption in the jails.
Baca also was ordered to pay a $7,500 fine.
Baca’s attorneys had asked that he serve only home detention, and they have vowed to appeal his conviction. His attorney filed papers earlier this week urging that the ex-sheriff be allowed to remain free pending arguments before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Baca, 74, was convicted March 15 of obstruction of justice and two other federal charges for his role in the scheme to thwart the FBI probe into inmate mistreatment in the jails that he ran, and of lying to the bureau.
After about two days of deliberations, a criminal jury in downtown Los Angeles — the second to hear the case — found that Baca authorized and condoned a multi-part scheme that now has resulted in the conviction of 10 former members of the Sheriff’s Department.
During his two trials, prosecutors described Baca as being the top figure in the conspiracy, which also involved his former right-hand man, Paul Tanaka, and eight deputies who took orders from the sheriff.
In helping derail the FBI probe, Baca “abused the great power the citizens of Los Angeles County had given him,” while false statements made during a sworn interview with investigators was a “deliberate attempt to deflect blame and place it entirely on the shoulders of others within his department,” the prosecution wrote in pre-sentencing documents.
Normally, the government would recommend a prison term of more than four years for the convictions. But due to Baca’s age and cognitive condition, “the interests of justice will not be served by defendant spending many years behind bars in a severely impaired state,” the document states.
In its papers supporting a probationary term in home detention with community service, the defense cited Baca’s decades of public service, diagnosis of early stage Alzheimer’s disease and “peripheral” role in the wide-ranging conspiracy.
Attorney Nathan Hochman asked the judge to consider “an individual with one of this country’s most exceptional public service careers spanning almost 50 years, an individual who suffers from the incurable and rapidly progressing and debilitating mental health disease of Alzheimer’s, and an individual for whom prison will not allow him to obtain medical care in the most effective manner and will subject him to especially harsh treatment due to his medical condition as well to his age and former position as sheriff.”
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson could have imposed a prison term of up 20 years for the convictions, according to federal sentencing guidelines.
During the sentencing hearing, Anderson noted the seriousness of the offenses and the resulting potential for eroding public confidence in law enforcement. He said if it hadn’t been for Baca’s years of public service, and his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Baca would have received an even stiffer sentence, likely of five years in prison.
Anderson told Baca it was time for him “to accept responsibility.”
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years — was first tried in December 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. Baca did not take the stand in either trial.
The charges stemmed from events six years ago when a cellphone was discovered in the hands of an inmate 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 an inmate-turned-informant from federal prosecutors, who had issued a summons for his grand jury appearance.
The charges involved a host of illegal acts, including a 2011 incident in which two sheriff’s investigators confronted an FBI agent in the driveway leading to her apartment and falsely told her they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest. Baca denied having advance knowledge of the illicit attempt to intimidate the federal agent.
Prior to the first trial, Baca had pleaded guilty to the lying count, but subsequently backed out of a plea deal — which called for him to serve no more than six months in prison — after the judge rejected the agreement as too lenient. If Baca had not withdrawn from the plea, he could have been handed a sentence of five years behind bars. He was then indicted on the three felony counts for which he was subsequently convicted.
Prosecutors described the defendant as “a study in contrasts. He championed certain reforms in the criminal justice system, yet ignored warnings that his deputies were committing serious abuses in the Los Angeles County jails. He touted his close relationship with federal officials, yet was angry that the federal government was investigating his department. He recited the department’s ‘Core Values’ — which emphasize honor and integrity — during the same interview in which he lied to the federal government.”
While physically fit and able to function in his daily life, prosecutors wrote, Baca now faces “an uncertain prognosis for how quickly his mild cognitive impairment will advance.”
In his argument for a non-custodial sentence, Hochman wrote that Baca’s condition would be best treated outside of prison.
Baca became sheriff in December 1998 and won re-election in 2002, 2006, and 2010. 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 Baca to retire the following month.
In his request that Baca remain free pending appeal, Hochman argued that he is not likely to flee and poses no danger to the community.
The defense attorney further wrote that his appeal is justified because the court erred in barring jurors from hearing evidence of Baca’s “cooperation” with both the federal probe and an independent county review board, and that the jury should have heard about the ex-sheriff’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Hochman also claims 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.