Crime & Justice

Judge defers ruling on LA Sheriff Baca Alzheimer’s defense

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca goes on trial next month.
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca goes on trial next month.
HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

A federal judge Tuesday heard arguments about whether to allow the testimony of an Alzheimer’s expert in the upcoming trial of former L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca -- but said he would issue a written ruling later. The trail is slated to begin Dec. 6.

Baca’s defense attorneys want to use the dementia expert, Dr. James Spar, to show the jury the 74-year-old’s mind may have been clouded by the disease three years ago when the FBI was investigating his department.

Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, pointed out Tuesday that his client said “I don’t recall, I don’t remember” over 25 times during interviews.

But Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox told Judge Percy Anderson Spar's testimony “is junk science.”
 
Baca reported no issues with cognitive functioning when he allegedly violated the law, he said.
 
Adding that those in the criminal justice system understand interviews and why someone might say “he doesn’t recall,” Fox said.
 
Federal prosecutors also sought to bring in a former Los Angeles Times reporter, Robert Faturechi, to testify – an unusual move. Faturechi covered the jail system, federal investigation and subsequent scandal for the newspaper and prosecutors want him to testify about his conversations with Baca.
 
Attorney Kelli Sager, who is representing the L.A. Times, cited First Amendment protections, and asked that the judge either quash the subpoena or restrict the reporter's testimony to published material.
 
Anderson has yet to make a decision on that issue, either.

Baca is accused of making false statements to federal agents during a 2013 interview. He is also accused of conspiring to obstruct justice and obstructing justice in August and September of 2011, when he allegedly oversaw the effort by his deputies to block the federal investigation into brutality by deputies inside the jails.

At issue is an interview in April of 2013 when federal agents asked Baca if he was involved in a scheme to block a federal investigation into inmate beatings by his deputies. Specifically, the feds wanted to know if Baca knew that two of his deputies had approached an FBI agent outside her home 20 months earlier and threatened to arrest her – an attempt to shut down the investigation, according to prosecutors.

According to court documents, Baca said he “was not aware” of the interaction and only learned of it when an FBI official called to complain. Prosecutors say that was a lie – that Baca had actually ordered his deputies to go to the agent’s home.

Hochman said because Baca has since been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it increases the probability the he suffered from memory impairment during that interview. Hochman said the pre-stage of Alzheimer's can last up to ten years.

“What we are trying to do is give the jury information about Mr. Baca’s memory impairment,” he said.

Dr. Spar was also hired by the wife of former NBA Clippers owner Donald Sterling in a court battle to show Sterling was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and unfit to serve as the team's owner.

Federal prosecutors want to block Spar's testimony, and argue it is not based on reliable methodology and would be “confusing and prejudicial to the jury,” according to court documents. Prosecutors point out Baca reported no issues with cognitive functioning when he allegedly was violating the law.

“Doctors who saw him from 2010 to 2013 observed and reported that he was alert and oriented to person, place and time, and that...psychiatric affect was always normal.”

At the same time, Baca has the right to introduce evidence to negate what the prosecution alleges, said Loyola Law School Professor Jan Costello. She predicted the judge would allow defense attorneys to talk about his Alzheimer’s disease.

“I think the chances are good,” Costello said.

The federal investigation into the L.A. County jails led to the abrupt resignation of Baca in January of 2014 and the election of current Sheriff Jim McDonnell. In June, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in trying to block the federal investigation into the jails. He remains free on bail pending appeal. Seven other former sheriff’s officials were also convicted in the scheme.

Earlier this year, Baca pleaded guilty to making false statements in a plea deal with prosecutors that would have landed him in prison for no more six months. But U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson rejected that deal, saying it was too lenient on Baca. Anderson said he reserved the right to sentence the ex-sheriff to the maximum five years in prison.

Baca in turn renounced the deal and sought a trial. Federal prosecutors then added the obstruction of justice charges. If convicted on all charges, Baca now could face up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors are barred from using his earlier admission of guilt on the false statements charge in his trial.