LOS ANGELES – Attorneys for former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca will not oppose a court-appointed medical expert’s conclusion that the retired lawman, now in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, is competent to stand trial on obstruction of justice charges, according to court papers obtained Wednesday.
In a stipulation filed in Los Angeles federal court, lawyers for the prosecution and defense have agreed not to contest the so-far unidentified psychologist’s opinion that Baca is mentally healthy enough to stand trial next month.
However, defense attorneys still want to tell a jury that their client was impaired from the disease as early as 2011.
Among issues expected to be discussed at an evidentiary hearing Tuesday is whether the judge will allow testimony from a defense psychiatrist that attempts to link actions charged in a felony indictment against Baca to the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment he received years later.
Baca’s attorneys want a jury to hear the opinions of Dr. James Spar regarding the ex-sheriff’s mental state in 2011 and 2013, according to court documents.
The indictment against the former sheriff charges that he conspired to commit and committed obstruction of justice from August to September 2011 and made five false statements to the federal government in April 2013.
The defense argues that the 2013 interview at the root of the false statements allegations dealt with events and conversations that took place 20 months earlier — in August and September 2011 — and it was likely that Baca’s “memory impairment affected his answers to questions.”
Federal prosecutors — in a motion to bar Spar’s proposed testimony — counter that during his 16-year tenure as sheriff, Baca “never reported any concerns about memory loss or cognitive impairment to any doctor.”
In fact, prosecutors contend, “the opposite is true. Defendant repeatedly went to the doctor and reported no issues related to cognitive functioning. Doctors who saw him from 2010 to 2013 observed and reported that he was alert and oriented to person, place and time, that there were no significant neurological findings, and that psychiatric affect was always normal.”
“All the while, defendant continued to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, the nation’s largest, and perform his executive tasks, including regularly testifying before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors,” a federal prosecutor wrote. “In addition, defendant planned to run for re-election in 2014.”
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson set a Dec. 6 trial date in the case, in which Baca faces charges that carry a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
The prosecution maintains that it was in March 2014 that Baca sought medical advice based on concerns about his cognitive functioning. Medical records from that period indicate his chief complaint was sleep disturbance, although the defendant also complained of anxiety, depression and memory difficulties, according to documents.
Defense lawyers want Spar — who testified as an expert in dementia in a 2014 lawsuit that touched on billionaire Donald Sterling’s mental health — to tell the jury that Baca was properly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in May 2014, that he is currently in the early stages of the disease and suffers from mildly impaired cognitive function.
The physician would also attempt to relate the diagnosis back to 2011-13 by suggesting that Alzheimer’s is present for “years to decades” before the earliest symptoms of cognitive deterioration appear, the motion states.
Prosecutors want Anderson to bar Spar’s testimony, which they argue is not based on reliable methodology and sufficient facts, “but instead would be confusing and prejudicial to the jury.”
In August, Baca withdrew his guilty plea to the lying charge and decided instead to take his chances at trial. Baca’s decision came after Anderson rejected a plea deal that limited the former sheriff’s prison time to a maximum of six months.
The judge said that a six-month prison term was too lenient. If Baca had not withdrawn from the plea, he could have been handed a sentence of five years behind bars on the false statements count.
The ex-sheriff was subsequently indicted on the new charges. Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
Baca claims he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that 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.
Tanaka, who alleges his former boss initiated the plan, was sentenced by Anderson to five years in prison, but is free pending appeal.
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.
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