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Citing the coronavirus, ex-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca asks for release from prison

Lee Baca
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Citing the threat of the novel coronavirus, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has asked a federal judge to release him from a Texas prison while he fights to have his conviction tossed out.

Baca, who was found guilty of thwarting a federal investigation into his department’s scandal-plagued jail system, is less than two months into a three-year prison term.

“Mr. Baca is nearly 78 years old and has Alzheimer’s disease. He is part of the population most vulnerable to the virus,” the motion filed by Baca’s San Diego-based attorney, Benjamin L. Coleman, said.

The filing notes that President Trump said earlier this month that the government was considering releasing “nonviolent prisoners due to the grave risk of the virus spreading in a prison environment.”

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“Mr. Baca clearly fits the type of offender who should be released under the circumstances,” the motion states. Coleman declined to comment further.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in L.A., said prosecutors will respond “in coming days.”

Baca, who is being housed at the Federal Correctional Institution La Tuna, a low-security prison outside El Paso, is among a spate of elderly inmates seeking release amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, 81, the former Colombian drug kingpin, has asked a federal judge in Miami to let him out of prison, arguing that if the virus spreads among inmates, it “will be a death sentence.”

Michael Cohen, 53, Trump’s former personal attorney, sought early release from a three-year prison sentence, citing the coronavirus. A federal judge scoffed at the request and denied it, saying it “appears to be just another effort to inject himself into the news cycle.”

In 2017, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson sentenced Baca to three years in federal custody after a jury found he oversaw the plan to interfere with the federal probe into inmate abuses in the county jail system, then lied to prosecutors about his role. The once-respected law enforcement leader had remained free while his appeals were pending, which Coleman notes in the motion.

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“He is absolutely no flight risk, having self-surrendered to his designated institution a day early. He was convicted on nonviolent offenses and has no prior convictions or history of violence,” the filing said.

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Baca’s conviction, and in January the Supreme Court denied his request to review the case.

Anderson, the federal judge, will decide whether to grant Baca’s request for release. His filing was made in connection with a pending motion to have his conviction and sentence vacated.

Baca was the last in a group of Sheriff’s Department employees — from low-level deputies to Baca’s second-in-command — to be accused of playing a role in the scandal, which involved hiding an inmate who was an FBI informant and threatening to arrest the federal agent who was leading the investigation.

All 10 of those who faced charges in the case either pleaded guilty or were convicted, including former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was sentenced to five years in prison after a jury found he helped lead the scheme. Several other deputies were found guilty of civil rights violations for beatings of inmates and jail visitors.

In 2014, as the department was engulfed in the jail scandal, Baca stepped down. His attorneys have argued that Baca never authorized the wrongdoing alleged by prosecutors, and that there was no hard evidence directly linking him to the obstruction scheme.


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