Los Angeles

Closing Arguments Begin in Retrial of Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca

Prosecutors have sought to prove that Lee Baca was at the heart of a scheme to hide a federal informant from the FBI

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca did nothing to thwart a federal investigation into wrongdoing by deputies in the jail system, but actually wanted to work alongside the FBI on the probe, his attorney told a jury Monday in closing arguments of the ex-lawman's corruption retrial.

But a prosecutor insisted Baca was not only guilty, but he is especially culpable given his years of experience in law enforcement.

"That experience is damning — not a positive — when you talk about committing these crimes," Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Rhodes told the eight-man, four-woman jury in downtown Los Angeles as she summed up her case.

Rhodes walked the jury through a timeline of the prosecution's case, saying he orchestrated a conspiracy to derail the FBI probe into mistreatment of inmates at the jails managed by the sheriff's department, then lied to federal investigators about his involvement.

Baca, who ran the nation's largest sheriff's department for more than 15 years, faces charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements.

The retired lawman was tried in December on the first two counts, and prosecutors had planned a second trial on the lying count. But a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting him, and U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson combined all three counts in the retrial, which began Feb. 22.

The charges partly stem from a 2011 incident in which two sheriff's investigators confronted an FBI agent in the driveway leading into her apartment and falsely told her they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest. Baca denies having advance knowledge of the illegal attempt to intimidate the agent.

In his roughly three-hour closing argument, defense attorney Nathan Hochman repeatedly foisted blame for the obstruction on Baca's then-second-in-command, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who has already been convicted and is serving five years in federal prison.

Hochman insisted Baca, 74, did nothing to subvert the probe, but he actually "wanted to join the federal investigation."

"These were guys in a sandbox — the sheriff's department and the FBI" trying to investigate what was happening in the jails, Hochman said.

Baca "could not have been more transparent or open," he said, adding that his client "had nothing to hide."

"His goal was simple — get to the bottom of the investigation," Hochman said.

The defense attorney said Baca "did not abuse his power. He responsibly used his power" to investigation the jails.

Rhodes disputed the defense's contentions, painting Baca as the brains behind the conspiracy and urging the jury to "hold him to the same standard that all criminal defendants are held to."

She said there is "only one verdict, and that verdict based on the evidence is guilty."

Hochman countered, however, that there is a "lack of evidence" needed to convict Baca.

The arguments ended about two weeks of testimony from more than a dozen witnesses.

Although the prosecution's string of witnesses often mirrored those in the first trial, Hochman was barred from again presenting evidence of "prior good works" related to Baca's years as leader of the department. Anderson ruled that such evidence does not directly pertain to the charges for which he is being tried.

Hochman also wanted the jury to hear medical testimony that Baca has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for years. The judge shot that down, calling such proposed testimony a "waste of time."

Baca's attorneys contend the ex-sheriff is in the early stages of the disease and suffered some cognitive impairment as long as six years ago — a period which covers the time in April 2013 when he allegedly made false statements under oath about events two years prior.

Baca did not take the stand. The defense rested after calling a single witness — Michael Gennaco, a former civil rights prosecutor and longtime police use-of-force consultant — who told jurors that Baca was instrumental in the creation of the Office of Independent Review, a civilian watchdog group that provided oversight of misconduct in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He said Baca was highly supportive of the group's endeavors.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox pointed out during cross-examination that the committee was not an enforcement agency and had little power to draw back the curtains on what was occurring at the department.

Before resting his case, Fox called Andre Birotte Jr., formerly the top federal prosecutor in the region — he has since become a federal judge — to tell of a heated meeting he attended with Baca and Steven Martinez, who was in charge of the FBI office in Los Angeles at the time.

Birotte said Baca, whom he had known for years, was the most upset he had ever seen him in phone calls and meetings after the sheriff learned that FBI agents had smuggled a cellphone to the informant by bribing a corrupt sheriff's deputy as part of an undercover sting.

"I'm the g-d-damn sheriff. These are my g-damn jails," he quoted Baca as saying.

The jury, made up of eight men and four women with four others serving as alternates, is expected to begin deliberations in downtown Los Angeles immediately after closing arguments.

Nine other people, including Tanaka, have been convicted of related charges.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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