LOS ANGELES – A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca can remain free on bail while appealing his conviction for obstructing an FBI probe into the conduct of deputies in the jail system.
“Baca has clearly and convincingly shown that he is not likely to flee or to pose a danger to the safety of any other person or the community if released, and the parties do not dispute this finding,” according to the two-page ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We conclude that Baca has raised a `substantial question’ of law or fact,” the ruling states.
Baca, 75, was sentenced in May to three years in federal prison for his conviction on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements.
Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, argued that U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson erred in barring jurors from hearing evidence of Baca’s “cooperation” with both the federal probe into wrongdoing by deputies in the jail system and an independent county review board, and that the panel should have heard about the ex-sheriff’s Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. Hochman also said the use of an anonymous jury in Baca’s trial was a mistake that could result in a finding for a retrial.
Anderson rejected the claims, writing that the court’s “jury instructions, decision to empanel an anonymous jury and evidentiary rulings were not in error and did not deprive the defendant of his constitutional right to present a defense.”
The appeals court ruled that the question about excluding evidence of Baca’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis “is at least `fairly debatable”‘ as it relates to whether it could have affected his conviction for making false statements.
“Finally, the district court clearly erred in holding that Baca failed to carry his burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he filed the appeal for a purpose other than delay,” according to the ruling.
During Baca’s two trials, prosecutors described the ex-lawman as being the top figure in a multi-part conspiracy, which also involved his former right-hand man, Paul Tanaka, and eight deputies who took orders from the sheriff.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years — was first tried in December on obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice counts, and prosecutors had planned a second trial on the false statements count. But a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting the former sheriff, and Anderson combined all three counts in the retrial that ended with Baca’s conviction. Baca did not take the stand in either trial.
The charges stemmed from events six years ago when a cell phone was discovered in the hands of an inmate/informant at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone to the FBI, which had been conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.
At that point, sheriff’s officials closed ranks and began an attempt to halt the formerly covert investigation by concealing the inmate-turned- informant from federal prosecutors, who had issued a summons for his grand jury appearance, prosecutors said.
Baca became sheriff in December 1998 and won re-election on several occasions. He was poised to run again in 2014, but federal indictments unsealed in December 2013, related to excessive force in the jails and obstruction of that investigation, led Baca to retire the following month.
Hochman said the jury should have been allowed to consider evidence of improvements Baca made in the training of jail guards to de-escalate problems and successfully deal with violent and/or mentally ill inmates. Baca was not charged with any instances of jail brutality.
In addition to the 10 people convicted in connection with the Baca conspiracy case, 11 other now-former sheriff’s department members were also convicted of various crimes uncovered during the FBI investigation.
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