LOS ANGELES – Jury selection began Monday — and will continue Tuesday — in the corruption trial of Los Angeles County’s former sheriff, who is facing federal obstruction of justice charges that could bring as much as 15 years in prison.
A jury will eventually be chosen from a pool of 150 residents called to the new federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles for screening. Opening statements could take place sometime Tuesday or Wednesday.
Lee Baca is accused of conspiring to commit and committing obstruction of justice from August to September 2011, and making five 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.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson split the trial into two parts, after finding that an expert on dementia can testify about Baca’s mental state, but only as it relates to charges of making false statements.
Baca is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but Anderson ruled that his mental state was not relevant to the conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. Those counts — which will be tried first — carry a possible maximum sentence of up to 15 years behind bars.
A second jury will be selected at a later date to hear testimony on the false statements count, which carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.
The charges focus on a period of time five years ago when sheriff’s deputies based at 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 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.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — claims he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that his former 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, and 10 others have been convicted of other charges connected to the overall federal probe.
Tanaka, who alleges his former boss initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison, but is free pending appeal.
Baca, 74, previously backed out of a plea deal on the lying count — 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 subsequently indicted on the three felony counts he now faces.
Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
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.
Both sides stipulate that Baca is competent to stand trial.
Among the expected witnesses are FBI agents involved in the jails investigation and former LASD officials, some of whom were convicted in related cases.
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