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Paul Tanaka, former L.A. County undersheriff, loses appeal of conviction on obstruction of justice charges

A federal appeals court on Thursday denied former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s bid for a new trial, rejecting claims by the controversial leader that his conviction on obstruction of justice charges was unjust.

A panel of three judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Tanaka’s conviction. Tanaka was sentenced to five years in prison after jurors found he had spearheaded a plan inside the Sheriff’s Department to interfere with an FBI investigation into inmate abuse by deputies in county jails.

In their appeal, attorneys for Tanaka argued that government prosecutors had unfairly tainted jurors’ minds when Tanaka took the stand in his own defense. In particular, they objected to how a prosecutor grilled Tanaka about his past involvement in the Vikings, a clique of deputies known for violence and overly aggressive policing. They contested as well the prosecutor’s closing argument, which began with a reference to Tanaka’s membership in a “deputy gang.”

The panel of judges rejected Tanaka’s argument that U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson should have forbidden any mention of the Vikings. Tanaka, they said, opened the door to the questions after claiming on the stand he was an ethical and law-abiding leader. And while they said the prosecutor was wrong to mention the Vikings in his closing argument, the error did not prevent Tanaka from receiving a fair trial.

The appeals court denied other claims from Tanaka stemming from the instructions Anderson gave the jury before it began deliberating and testimony about past abuses in county jails.

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