Crime & Justice

Former LA Sheriff Lee Baca will be retried in corruption case

Baca (center) and his attorney Nathan Hochman (right) outside a federal court in Los Angeles after a judge declared a mistrial in the obstruction of justice case against him.
Baca (center) and his attorney Nathan Hochman (right) outside a federal court in Los Angeles after a judge declared a mistrial in the obstruction of justice case against him.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday they will retry former L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca for obstruction of justice and conspiracy after his trial last month ended in a hung jury.

At the new trial, scheduled to begin in February, Baca will also face a third charge - false statements, which had been previously severed from the case. 

"We think it's best to rejoin the counts," prosecutor Brandon Fox told Judge Percy Anderson.

The defense took issue with the move to rejoin, saying it was extremely rare. 

"The matter is closed," Anderson told the defense. "That's what we are going to do."

Prosecutors accused Baca of being 'the heartbeat' of a conspiracy to thwart an FBI investigation into inmate abuse in the county jails, which the sheriff oversees. But Baca's defense attorney, Nathan Hochman, told jurors at the last trial the plan was masterminded by then undersheriff Paul Tanaka and carried out in secret from the sheriff.

Prosecutors presented evidence that put Baca in conversation with conspirators, but during deliberations, jurors questioned whether the sheriff’s involvement was illegal. Eleven of the 12 jurors wanted to acquit Baca of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. When the jurors could not reach consensus, the judge declared a mistrial. 

“Traditionally, many 11-1 cases have not been retried,” Hochman told reporters after retrial was announced. “Why the government wants to do that, you should ask the government.”

Baca was once among the most powerful men in law enforcement and ran the country's largest sheriff department for 15 years. He retired in 2014, not long after the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles announced charges against his employees.

Those deputies were accused of hiding an FBI informant, moving him from cell to cell and shrouding him under false names to make it difficult for the FBI to investigate claims of brutality in the jails. Sheriff's deputies also put an FBI agent under surveillance, showing up outside her home and threatening her arrest.  

Nine individuals were convicted or pleaded guilty for their roles in the scheme, including Baca's second-in-command, Paul Tanaka.

Earlier last year, prosecutors offered Baca a deal in exchange for pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI, but the judge rejected it as too lenient. That led to the December trial, when prosecutors called many former sheriff's deputies to testify against Baca.

Baca is accused of lying to federal investigators in 2013, when he told them that he didn’t know there was a civil rights investigation, did not participate in plans to keep the inmate informant from the FBI, and was unaware deputies were going to approach the FBI agent at her home.

Baca is also in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, and the defense is expected to argue his cognitive abilities may have already been in decline when he allegedly lied to investigators. Prosecutors said the testimony of defense witness and psychiatrist Dr. James Spar was “junk science” and is seeking to have it tossed out.

In Tuesday's announcement, federal prosecutors said they would prune the previous witness line-up and add other witnesses. Baca’s defense attorney said he is considering raising the issue of double jeopardy, but didn't explain how it might apply.

“That principle has never been applied in the context of a hung jury,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which investigated misconduct in the jails.

Opening statements of the new trial are expected to begin Feb. 21.