Tanaka contends questions about deputy sheriffs gang led to unfair trial

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka answers questions after testifying in a deputy misconduct trial in federal court in 2014.
Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka answers questions after testifying in a deputy misconduct trial in federal court in 2014. Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka's attorney argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday that prosecutors' questions about a deputy sheriffs gang was irrelevant, unfounded and prejudicial to his client. 

Tanaka is appealing his 2016 conviction for obstruction of justice and conspiracy stemming from his role in an attempt to block an FBI investigation into abuse in the jails. He was ousted as Gardena mayor and is currently serving a five-year prison sentence.

The high-profile corruption case brought down top managers of the L.A. County sheriffs department, including former Sheriff Lee Baca. Baca was scheduled last month to begin a three-year prison sentence stemming from his March conviction for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators in a cover-up of the inmate abuse inside Men’s Central Jail.

Baca won a temporary stay while the court of appeals determines whether he should be free on bond pending an appeal of his conviction.

Baca was the 10th member of the sheriff's department to be found guilty in a scheme to block the FBI probe into jail abuse. About a dozen more were convicted for beatings and other charges.

Tanaka, number two in the department under Baca, elected to take the stand during his trial. Upon cross-examination, a prosecutor peppered Tanaka with questions about the Lynwood Vikings, a group of sheriff's deputies reported to have mistreated minorities. Tanaka was also questioned about a tattoo he has of a viking. 

"The toxicity was potent," said Charles Sevilla, Tanaka's attorney.

Judge Morgan Christen said it was Tanaka who decided to take stand and testify about his values. 

"On and on he went," Christen said. "So what’s unfair about the prosecutor getting up and going through these reports?" There was "very fertile ground," she said.

At the appeals hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bram Alden characterized the evidence against Tanaka as "overwhelming" and said defense claims that the gang issue was irrelevant and prejudicial were not true.

Tanaka's attorney also took issues with witness immunity and jury instructions, but for 40 minutes the judges' questions circled around the issue of the deputy gang alone.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt said he found it "offensive" that the prosecutor called Tanaka a gang member in closing arguments. He said prosecutors should have stuck to their case — "instead of trying to prejudice a jury by saying somebody is a member of a gang when you haven’t tried to prove he’s a member of gang." 

The panel of judges did not immediately issue a ruling. Tanaka’s attorney says that’s expected in a month or two.

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