LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was the “heartbeat” of an internal conspiracy to thwart a federal probe into abuses in the jail system, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday at the onset of Baca’s corruption trial, but a defense attorney threw blame squarely on the ex-lawman’s former second-in-command.
In a roughly hour-long opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the six-man, six-woman jury that county residents had “entrusted (Baca) with an important power … to bring to light any criminal acts.”
“When it was his department, Mr. Baca abused that power,” Fox said, adding that the then-sheriff tried to “sweep (the abuse of power) under the rug.”
Baca is accused of conspiring to commit and committing obstruction of justice from August to September 2011. He will be tried separately at a later date on charges of making 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.
Fox said he will present jurors with “an overwhelming amount of evidence” to show that Baca was “the heartbeat, the leader of that conspiracy.”
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman countered that it was former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka who was largely to blame for the department’s actions to subvert the FBI probe. He called Tanaka a “man with his own agenda.”
“You will hear that when Baca found out (about the jails probe), he was open, transparent and direct,” Hochman said. “The FBI was his brother in arms.”
Hochman spent a large portion of his opening statement recapping Baca’s nearly half-century career with the sheriff’s department, which operates the jail system. He said prosecutors “will fail” in their effort to prove that Baca was the ringleader of the conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The first prosecution witness was a jail chaplain who told the jury that seven years ago he witnessed LASD deputies stomp a handcuffed, unresisting inmate into unconsciousness. Prosecutors hope to show jurors the sort of incident that helped spark the federal probe.
Paulino Juarez — who has worked at Men’s Central Jail since 1998 providing spiritual support to prisoners — testified that he watched unseen on the morning of Feb. 11, 2009, as deputies beat the inmate senseless, leaving the man in a puddle of blood.
The Catholic minister gave the same testimony in January at the trial of two former jail guards who were subsequently convicted of violating the civil rights of the inmate and then writing false use-of-force reports to cover up their actions.
Juarez said he saw the inmate, his back against the wall, and three deputies in front of him, punching him. Juarez told the panel that he never saw the inmate putting up any resistance.
The chaplain filed a report at the time and was interviewed by LASD investigators. In the weeks after he filed his complaint, he said, passing deputies would swear at him and call him names.
After hearing nothing for two years, Juarez reached out to the department and was granted a meeting with then-sheriff Baca. The sheriff, Juarez said, told him he had never heard about the incident.
“This happened two years ago and I’m only finding out about it now?” Baca asked his staff, according to the chaplain.
Baca looked over the file, and told the chaplain his investigators had determined that the inmate was schizophrenic. Juarez said Baca told him that deputies had to punch the inmate a couple of times to get him into the cell.
Mark Rosenbaum, a civil rights attorney who spent more than four decades with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, was called to the stand to tell the panel that the sheriff’s department mostly stonewalled decades of litigation over abuses within the county jail system.
The ACLU, he said, has been attempting to improve jail conditions for more than 30 years with little improvement. He said he has never had a full, open, candid discussion with Baca about the situation.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson split the trial into two parts after he agreed to allow testimony by an expert on dementia — but only as it relates to the charges of making false statements. Anderson agreed to hold a separate trial on those counts, so Baca — who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease — is being tried first on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges, saying the former sheriff’s mental state is not relevant to those counts. The conspiracy and obstruction charges carry a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years.
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 six-week period in August and September of 2011 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 in charge of the investigation 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 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 various charges connected to the overall federal probe.
Tanaka, who alleges that Baca 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.
Both sides stipulate that Baca is competent to stand trial.
The trial — which resumes Thursday — is expected to last two to three weeks.
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