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Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca likely headed to prison after Supreme Court declines to review case

Lee Baca
Lee Baca was convicted of helping orchestrate a scheme to interfere with an FBI investigation into abuses at Los Angeles County jails.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is probably headed to prison after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a last-ditch, longshot request to review his case Monday.

The high court denied Baca’s writ of certiorari, filed July 18, which would have reopened his case for review after a panel of judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that his conviction for helping orchestrate a scheme to interfere with an FBI investigation into abuses at the county’s jails was fair and legally sound. The justices also denied his requests for another hearing or a new hearing in front of the entire 9th Circuit.

Baca, 77, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was sentenced in 2017 to three years behind bars after a jury found he oversaw the plan to interfere with the jails investigation and later lied to prosecutors about his role in the scheme.

“The Supreme Court missed an opportunity to right the significant legal wrongs that occurred in Sheriff Baca’s case,” his attorney, Nathan Hochman, said in a statement.

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In the filing, Baca’s attorneys had asked the justices to consider two issues. The first was whether the trial court had properly instructed the jury about the obstruction of justice counts. The instructions had stated that the government had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Baca acted with an intent to obstruct the federal grand jury investigation, but did not have to prove that he acted with a consciousness of wrongdoing.

His attorneys argued that the corruption statute does require the government to prove that Baca had a consciousness of wrongdoing, “similar to criminal willfulness.”

Baca’s attorneys also asked the high court to review the trial court’s use of an anonymous jury, in which the jurors’ identities were unknown even to the defendant and attorneys. The 9th Circuit had ruled that the district court’s decision to impanel an anonymous jury was reasonable because of the highly publicized nature of the case and Baca’s position as a former high-ranking law enforcement officer.

Baca’s attorneys asked the justices to clarify whether the lower court should have considered alternatives, including sequestration or limited disclosure of the jurors’ identities to attorneys.

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The Supreme Court declined to consider those queries. The justices agree to hear only a fraction of the thousands of cases presented to them each year.

The decision marks the end of the road in terms of securing Baca’s freedom, Hochman confirmed.

“The Supreme Court is the final say on direct appeal,” he said.

Baca has remained free while his appeals were pending. The Supreme Court’s decision clears the way for U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who sentenced Baca, to set a date when the former lawman must begin serving his sentence.

The 9th Circuit must first issue a mandate sending notice to Anderson, who then can schedule a surrender date once he assumes jurisdiction of the case. That process could take several days, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California.

Baca was the last in a group of Sheriff’s Department deputies and commanders to be accused of playing a role in the 2011 scandal, which involved hiding an inmate who was an FBI informant and threatening to arrest the agent who was leading the investigation. All 10 of the people who faced charges in the case have either pleaded guilty or were convicted. They included Baca’s second-in-command, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who in 2016 was sentenced to five years in prison after a jury found that he had played a leading role in the scheme.

The obstruction plan played out over six weeks in August and September 2011, after sheriff’s officials discovered FBI agents had used a corrupt deputy to smuggle a cellphone to a jail inmate who was working as an informant.

The audacious move was part of an investigation opened the year before into the Men’s Central Jail, the main facility in the county’s enormous detention system. For years, the Sheriff’s Department had been dogged by reports of a place run amok, in which deputies routinely beat inmates without provocation and covered up the abuse, often with the knowledge of supervisors. Other corruption, including deputies who took bribes to sneak contraband to inmates, was said to be rampant as well.

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Prosecutors argued during trial that word of the smuggled phone and the FBI investigation angered Baca and Tanaka, who viewed it as an unwarranted incursion into their territory by an outside agency.

With Baca’s knowledge and, at times, his involvement, Tanaka oversaw a group of deputies and mid-level commanders who worked to derail the FBI investigation. They moved the informant under fake names to conceal his whereabouts from his handlers, pressured deputies and the informant not to cooperate with federal authorities and brazenly tried to intimidate the lead FBI agent on the case by threatening her with arrest.

Baca initially tried to plead guilty in a deal with prosecutors, but Anderson rejected it as too lenient and signaled he would impose a stiffer prison sentence than what was in the plea deal. Baca and his attorneys chose instead to withdraw his plea and take his chances at trial.

Baca nearly won an acquittal when all but one member of a jury wanted to find him not guilty. With the lone juror unwilling to budge, Anderson declared a mistrial. For the second trial, however, prosecutors revamped their case, and Anderson issued a string of rulings that hamstrung the defense.

The sentence deepened the stain already imprinted on Baca’s legacy and the reputation he enjoyed as one of the nation’s most visible and respected reformers in law enforcement. While quirky to the point of being enigmatic, Baca was seen as a champion of progressive ideas, including the need for police to build strong ties to minority communities. He stepped down in 2014 with the department engulfed in the jail scandal.

Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.


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