Crime & Justice

Baca trial: Closing arguments tell different tales of former sheriff

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, second from right, leaves federal court in Los Angeles with attorneys Nathan Hochman, right, David Hochman and Baca's wife Carol after his corruption trial went to the jury Monday, March 13, 2017, in Los Angeles. Prosecution and defense attorneys finished closing remarks earlier Monday. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, second from right, leaves federal court in Los Angeles with attorneys Nathan Hochman, right, David Hochman and Baca's wife Carol after his corruption trial went to the jury Monday, March 13, 2017, in Los Angeles. Prosecution and defense attorneys finished closing remarks earlier Monday. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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Closing arguments in the federal trial of Lee Baca on Monday offered two opposing views of the former L.A. County sheriff: the leader of a conspiracy with a "nefarious purpose" versus a man whose actions were "completely legitimate" standing falsely accused.

Baca's defense attorney Nathan Hochman asked each juror to see the case through "Baca's eyes." Obstruction, he said, "was not one of his goals."

Federal prosecutor Brendon Fox responded with a play on words: "Baca's I's" include interfere and impede, investigate criminally and intimidate.

Baca is accused of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and false statements. The charges stem from a 2011 federal investigation into deputy brutality in the jails. FBI agents were working undercover, but were outed when sheriff's deputies discovered an inmate's cellphone and connected it back to the FBI.

Department employees then hid the inmate informant from the FBI and failed to deliver him to the grand jury. Sheriff's sergeants later approached an FBI agent at her house and threatened to arrest her. 

Nine people have been convicted or pleaded guilty for their role in the scheme, and some took the stand against Baca – their former boss. Prosecutors also presented a pile of phone records, emails, calendars and other records and used closing arguments to try to draw clean lines to Baca.

The defense, in turn, tried to cast doubt on the prosecution's case, describing it as a tangled web of insufficient evidence. Hochman argued Baca never had the goal to obstruct justice.

"He welcomed the FBI," Hochman said. "He wanted to join the investigation. He didn't want to thwart it." Hochman added that Baca wanted to keep the inmate "safe" from possible snitch retaliation and "get to the bottom" of the FBI's investigation.

Federal prosecutor Lizabeth Rhodes countered that account was "a made-up story for trial." 

Prosecutors stated that Baca was using his investigators to conduct a "sham criminal investigation" to cover the real motive of blocking the FBI. When the FBI's investigation turned to Baca himself, Rhodes said the former sheriff lied.

The alleged lies occurred in a 2013 interview with federal prosecutors. In one instance, Baca told them he had "no clue this was a civil rights investigation" during the alleged obstruction activities. 

Prosecutors say evidence shows otherwise, with Baca then knowingly making false statements "to divert the government's attention."

Hochman responded to the allegations by invoking Baca's age: He was 71 years old. He then asked jurors how they would do if asked to review a conversation, a week ago, a month ago or a year ago.

Hochman said Baca viewed the interview with investigators as a conversation and didn't know "a criminal book would be thrown" at his head if he made a mistake. 

After closing arguments, the jury began deliberations. Those deliberations are scheduled to continue Tuesday and beyond until a verdict – or impasse – is reached. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of federal prosecutor Lizabeth Rhodes. KPCC regrets the error.