Less than 24 hours before former Los Angeles County sheriff Lee Baca was due to surrender to federal prison officials to serve a three-year sentence for his part in a corruption scandal, Baca got an immediate — though temporary — stay while the United States Court of Appeals determines whether he should be free on bond pending his appeal.
Baca was the 10th member of the sheriff's department to be convicted for his role in a scheme to block an FBI investigation into inmate abuse in the L.A. County jails. About a dozen more were convicted for beatings and other charges.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson handed Baca the three-year-prison sentence for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying in May. At the hearing, the judge said the sentence sent a strong message to elected officials, law enforcement and the public: “No person no matter how powerful … is above the law.”
Last week, Anderson denied Baca's request to stay out of prison while he appealed the conviction, stating Baca "has failed to raise a substantial question likely to result in reversal or new trial."
Baca's lawyers appealed that decision on Monday, triggering the automatic — though temporary —stay.
The former sheriff's attorneys argue Anderson excluded important evidence from the jury, including testimony about Baca's diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and past good acts, including cooperating with other outside investigations and his handling of excessive force issues. They say the exclusion violated Baca's constitutional right to present a defense.
"Mr. Baca sought to counter that he had taken substantial steps to expose and correct inmate abuse and civil rights violations throughout his career, including at the time of the charges, thereby undermining the government’s theory of motive," wrote Benjamin Coleman, one of Baca's attorneys, in a motion filed Monday.
Anderson said the evidence was irrelevant.
Baca's attorneys raised other issues: the defense didn't have enough information in jury selection, because of the court's decision to keep prospective jurors anonymous; the court gave misleading and tainting jury instructions; there was insufficient evidence to sustain one of the charges.
Baca, 75, served as sheriff for 15 years until the jail scandal led him to decide not to run for re-election and retire early from his fourth term.
He was brought down by a federal investigation that began as a probe into deputy abuse of inmates and, in 2011, turned to corruption scheme aimed at deputies who had blocked federal investigators.
Prosecutors first went after lower-level deputies directly involved in hiding an informant and threatening an agent and then went further up the chain of command. Baca had initially agreed to plead guilty to charges of lying to officials in exchange for a reduced sentence, but Anderson refused to sign off on the deal.
Baca took the charges to trial and nearly walked free: the first jury hung 11-1 in favor of acquittal. But a second jury convicted him in March.
Baca requested a sentence of community service and home confinement. His lawyer argued his client shouldn’t be subjected to the “harsh cruelty of the prison system not designed to address his medical condition.”
Anderson said it wasn't enough.
"There comes a time when you have to accept responsibility," he said.