LOS ANGELES – Jurors Tuesday began their first full day of deliberations in the retrial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who’s accused of orchestrating a scheme to thwart an FBI investigation into inmate mistreatment in the jails he ran and of lying to the bureau.
After nine days of testimony and more than a dozen witnesses, attorneys delivered closing arguments Monday. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson then instructed the panel, which retired to deliberate at 2:45 p.m. before leaving 45 minutes later without reaching a verdict.
Jurors are scheduled to deliberate each weekday from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but could work later if they wish.
Baca’s attorney told jurors in his closing argument that the ex-sheriff did nothing to impede the investigation and actually wanted to work alongside the FBI on the probe.
“Did he ever give an order to obstruct (the federal probe) — no,” defense attorney Nathan Hochman said.
However, a prosecutor insisted Baca was not only guilty, but he is especially culpable given his years 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 eight- man, four-woman jury in downtown Los Angeles 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 in her summation, telling jurors the ex-sheriff appointed his top deputy, then-Undersheriff Paul 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, who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years, faces up to 20 years behind bars if convicted of charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements.
The 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 him, and U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson combined all three counts in the retrial, which began Feb. 22.
The charges partly stem 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 denies having advance knowledge of the illegal attempt to intimidate the agent.
In his roughly three-hour final argument, 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, 74, did nothing to subvert the probe, but he actually “wanted to join the federal investigation.”
“These were guys in a sandbox — the sheriff’s department and the FBI” who should have been working side-by-side to investigate what was happening in the jails, Hochman said.
Baca “could not have been more transparent or open,” he said, adding that his client “had nothing to hide.”
“His goal was simple — get to the bottom of the investigation,” Hochman said.
The defense attorney said Baca “did not abuse his power. He responsibly used his power” to investigate the jails.
Rhodes disputed the defense’s contentions, painting Baca as the brains behind the conspiracy and urging the jury to “hold him to the same standard that all criminal defendants are held to.”
She said there is “only one verdict, and that verdict based on the evidence is guilty.”
Hochman countered, however, that there is a “lack of evidence” needed to convict Baca.
Baca did not take the stand.
The defense rested after calling a single witness — Michael Gennaco, a former civil rights prosecutor and longtime police use-of-force consultant — who told jurors that Baca was instrumental in the creation of the Office of Independent Review, a civilian watchdog group that provided oversight of misconduct in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He said Baca was highly supportive of the group’s endeavors.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox pointed out during cross-examination that the committee was not an enforcement agency and had little power to draw back the curtains on what was occurring at the department.
Before resting his case, Fox called Andre Birotte Jr., formerly the top federal prosecutor in the region — who has since become a federal judge — to tell of a heated meeting he attended with Baca and Steven Martinez, who was in charge of the FBI office in Los Angeles at the time.
Birotte said Baca, whom he had known for years, was the most upset he had ever seen him in phone calls and meetings after the sheriff learned that FBI agents had smuggled a cell phone to the informant by bribing a corrupt sheriff’s deputy as part of an undercover sting.
“I’m the g-d-damn sheriff. These are my g-damn jails,” he quoted Baca as saying.
Nine other people, including Tanaka, have been convicted of related charges.
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