LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted Wednesday of obstruction of justice and two other federal charges for orchestrating a scheme to thwart an FBI investigation into inmate mistreatment in the jails he ran and of lying to the bureau.
Jurors reached the verdict Wednesday afternoon, in their second full day of deliberations in Baca’s retrial. The eight-man, four-woman jury got the case Monday afternoon after hearing nine days of testimony involving more than a dozen witnesses.
Baca showed no emotion as he was convicted of all three counts with which he was charged — obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and making false statements to the FBI. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison, according to prosecutors.
Baca came out of the courthouse and told a throng of media that he’s “optimistic” about the future, while thanking his wife, friends and supporters.
“I also want to say I appreciate the jury system. My mentality is always optimistic. I feel good,” he said as he left, flanked by his lawyers who had their arms around his waist.
“We fought the good fight every day in court,” defense attorney Nathan Hochman said. He predicted a win on appeal, saying the jury was not allowed to hear all the evidence that would have acquitted his client.
The jury foreman, a 51-year-old Los Angeles resident who did not want to give his name, told reporters that the evidence showed Baca tried “at times” to block the FBI investigation and that it was evident that the sheriff was “trying to protect his empire.”
The foreman said the most compelling testimony came from former Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo, who warned Baca about thwarting the FBI.
The 74-year-old retired lawman was tried in December on the first two counts, and prosecutors had planned a second trial on the lying count. But a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting the former sheriff, and the judge combined all three counts in the retrial, which began Feb. 22 with jury selection.
The charges partly stemmed from a 2011 incident in which two sheriff’s investigators confronted an FBI agent in the driveway leading into 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 illegal attempt to intimidate the agent.
Nine former sheriff’s officials, including Baca’s top deputy, Paul Tanaka, have been convicted in the case.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox used a chess analogy, calling Baca “a king” who used his subordinates as chess pieces in a tit-for-tat between the Sheriff’s Department and the FBI.
“The pawns and bishops go out to attack and do all the dirty work,” Fox said, adding that Baca was now trying to disown everything that happened.”
Baca’s lawyer countered that there was no chess game. “This wasn’t even a checkers game,” Hochman said.
Hochman repeatedly pinned blame for the obstruction on Tanaka, who has already been convicted and is serving five years in federal prison.
Hochman insisted Baca did nothing to subvert the probe, but he actually “wanted to join the federal investigation.”
However, a second prosecutor insisted Baca was not only guilty, but was especially culpable given his decades of experience in law enforcement.
“That experience is damning — not a positive — when you talk about committing these crimes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Rhodes told the jury as she summed up the government’s case.
Rhodes walked the jury through a timeline of the prosecution’s case, saying Baca orchestrated a conspiracy to derail the FBI probe into mistreatment of inmates at jails managed by the sheriff’s department, then lied to federal investigators about his involvement.
Baca “ran this conspiracy the same way he ran this department,” Rhodes said, telling jurors the ex-sheriff appointed Tanaka to oversee the scheme. At the same time, “the sheriff was having multiple briefings because he wanted to know every little thing that was going on,” the prosecutor said.
Baca ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years before he retired in 2014 amid allegations of widespread abuse of inmates’ civil rights.
The defense contends that the ex-sheriff is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and suffered some cognitive impairment as long as six years ago. However, the judge barred Hochman from presenting medical testimony during the retrial.
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