Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s 2017 conviction on charges of obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI has been upheld in court. The 76-year-old Baca, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is now closer than ever to serve his three years in federal prison.
“Prosecutors presented a fair and thorough case that demonstrated Mr. Baca acted corruptly by obstructing a federal grand jury investigation,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said. “Instead of cooperating with a federal investigation that ultimately was concerned about improving conditions in the county jails, Mr. Baca chose to obstruct and then lie to federal authorities,”
The appellate panel’s ruling does not automatically mean Baca will be going to prison. He could request a review by the full 9th Circuit or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During arguments before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel in November, Baca attorney Benjamin Coleman contended that the trial judge in the case had abused his discretion by barring jurors from hearing evidence of the former sheriff’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Coleman argued the ruling could have affected all of Baca’s criminal convictions and urged the appellate panel to overturn the guilty verdicts.
Coleman argued that Baca’s conviction for making false statements during an FBI interview in 2013 was the direct result of mild impairment caused by early stages of the disease. Baca was diagnosed with the disease in May 2014.
During the FBI interview, which focused on events in 2011, Baca was found guilty because he “couldn’t remember every single little detail from two years earlier,” Coleman alleged. But Alden responded that while Baca may have been in the “pre-clinical stage” of the disease in 2013, the defense’s own expert witness could not prove that the ex-lawman was likely to have been suffering from memory loss at the time of the interview.
Baca was convicted on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements. During his two trials, prosecutors described the ex-lawman as being the top figure in a multi-part conspiracy, which also involved his former right-hand man, Paul Tanaka, and eight deputies who took orders from the sheriff.
The charges stemmed from events more than seven years ago when a cell phone was discovered in the hands of an inmate/informant at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone to the FBI, which had been conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.