Crime & Justice

Former LA Sheriff Lee Baca will go on trial in federal court after plea deal denied

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announces his unexpected retirement on January 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announces his unexpected retirement on January 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, once one of the most powerful law enforcement officials in the nation, will go on trial for lying to federal agents about his efforts to block a federal investigation into L.A. County jails.

The investigation centered on the beating of jail inmates by sheriff’s deputies.

In February, Baca pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to investigators about his role in a sophisticated scheme that included hiding a jail informant from the FBI and threatening a federal agent with arrest. He made a deal with prosecutors that he would serve no more than six months in prison.

But Federal District Judge Percy Anderson rejected that agreement last month, saying it was too lenient.

Baca could have chosen to go through with his guilty plea, and be subject to whatever sentence Anderson chose. The maximum sentence is five years in federal prison. 

Instead, he withdrew his plea and opted for a jury trial, tentatively scheduled for September. 

Monday morning, Baca's attorneys huddled with federal prosecutors in an apparent attempt to reach a new agreement. But as court reconvened in the afternoon, it became clear no deal had been reached. 

Michael Zwieback, Baca's attorney, said Baca was willing to take a sentence of a year in prison, but prosecutors declined the offer. 

Zweiback said Judge Anderson has given little information about what punishment he would give Baca.

 “He has tried to give us some indication as to where he thinks it is, but it’s still very opened ended and uncertain,” said Zweiback.

That uncertainty is what drove Baca’s decision to go to trial. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, Baca's health is expected to get worse over the next two years, according to his attorney.

“We have a very very small window of time that we believe Mr. Baca’s life will be normal, and we believe after that point that there’s a good likelihood he will be suffering very dramatically from the disease at issue.” Baca doesn’t want that to happen while he is in prison.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has already sent 21 former sheriff's employees to prison in related prosecutions, many of which went to trial. 

Jail activists who showed up outside the courthouse accused the sheriff of trying to avoid accountability by prolonging the process. They also said whatever happens to Baca, the fight to reform the Sheriff’s Department continues.

“For us, real accountability is making sure we have independent civilian oversight that has power,” said Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity with the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence. 

The Board of Supervisors established the oversight panel, but has yet to appoint it members or decide on the extent of its powers. 

This story has been updated.