LOS ANGELES – A federal judge Tuesday took under submission a request to admit testimony from a defense psychiatrist that attempts to link former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s alleged criminal actions to a years-later diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment.
U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson did not say when he would rule on the motion, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office seeking to exclude the testimony of Dr. James Spar, but Baca’s lawyers argue that they want jurors to hear about their client’s mental state in 2011 and 2013.
Baca, 74, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox said Spar’s proposed testimony would be based on “absolute junk science.” He said the prosecution would be prejudiced because the jury would be unduly sympathetic to Baca.
However, Baca’s lawyer, Nathan Hochman, said Spar is willing to put his medical expertise on the line and that the prosecution can challenge him through cross-examination.
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.
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.”
Both sides stipulate that the retired lawman is competent to stand trial on obstruction of justice charges. An as-yet unidentified court-appointed psychologist came to that conclusion after examining Baca last month. However, defense attorneys still want a jury to hear that their client was impaired from the disease as early as 2011.
A Dec. 5 trial date has been set in the case, in which Baca faces charges that carry a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
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