Crime & Justice

Corruption case against former LA Sheriff Baca split into 2 trials

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca speaks to the media after leaving federal court in Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 2016. Baca withdrew a guilty plea and chose to go to trial on a charge of lying to federal authorities in an effort to thwart an FBI investigation into abuses at the jails he ran.
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca speaks to the media after leaving federal court in Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 2016. Baca withdrew a guilty plea and chose to go to trial on a charge of lying to federal authorities in an effort to thwart an FBI investigation into abuses at the jails he ran.
Nick Ut/AP

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The federal case against former Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca has now become two cases.

Baca is charged with making false statements, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson granted a request from federal prosecutors to sever the false statements charge into a subsequent trial to avoid “prejudicial spillover.”

Baca is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. His defense attorneys argue that his cognitive ability may have been in decline years earlier when he allegedly made false statements to the government. Prosecutors don’t want the Alzheimer's testimony to taint the jury’s consideration of the conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges against Baca.

Severance would "prevent serious, unavoidable prejudice to the government," prosecutors told the judge in a motion. The defense disagreed, stating "in past LASD trials this Court has presided over, the Court has had full confidence that the jury can follow limiting instructions" and would be able to apply the Alzheimer's testimony only to the relevant charge. 

Baca is the highest ranking officer charged after members of his department attempted to block a federal investigation into corruption and brutality inside L.A. County’s jails. 

Prosecutors allege Baca ordered deputies to hide a jail informant from the FBI and conspired with his deputies to threaten a female FBI agent with arrest in an attempt to get her to back off the investigation.

Jury selection began Monday in the first trial. One hundred and fifty potential jurors lined up in the morning, clutching their summons, at the new federal court house in downtown Los Angeles.

Anderson warned them the trial was expected to last two to three weeks. Nearly 100 prospective jurors asked to be excused, telling the judge weeks away from work or family was a hardship.

The judge ordered the media out of the courtroom the rest of the day to hear them out. By the end of the day, the court still had not whittled it down to the final jury members. 

One concern, is how much the potential jurors know, if anything, about the sheriff department corruption investigation and a previous plea deal made with the former sheriff. 

In July, Baca initially attempted to plead guilty to one count of lying to a federal agent as part of a deal that would have limited his sentence to no more than six months in prison. However, Judge Anderson rejected the plea, saying the penalty would have been too lenient.

The jury has also been warned to stay away from the headlines the trial is attracting and not try to learn anything on their own. Until the end, Judge Anderson said, “do not communicate with anyone in anyway.”