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The Baca mistrial explained: What you need to know about the former sheriff’s case

A mistrial was declared Dec. 22 in the corruption case against former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

It was supposed to be the culmination of an expansive prosecution of corruption and misconduct in the Los Angeles County jail system.

After winning convictions against many lower-level figures in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, federal prosecutors brought charges against the man who had led the agency for 15 years.

But on Thursday, a jury deadlocked on whether former Sheriff Lee Baca  tried to obstruct an FBI investigation into allegations of abuse and other misconduct by his jail deputies.

That led the judge to declare a mistrial.

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Ex-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca’s obstruction trial ends in mistrial; jurors hopelessly deadlocked »

Here is a breakdown of the issues in the case.

What was Baca accused of doing?

Baca, 74, was accused of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and of making false statements to federal investigators about his involvement in the plan to interfere with the jail investigation. 

Prosecutors allege that Baca resented the FBI’s efforts to investigate his jails and believed sheriff’s officials should, as he said in a TV news interview, “police ourselves.” The U.S. attorney’s office has secured convictions in the obstruction case against nine former sheriff’s officials, including Baca’s second-in-command. Several other deputies have been convicted of civil rights violations in connection with the abuse allegations.

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What was his defense?

Baca’s attorneys maintained that although he was upset with federal officials for keeping him in the dark about their operation, his motivation was not to impede the federal investigation. Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was the one who directed the rank-and-file deputies to take steps to foil the FBI probe, a defense lawyer told the jury. Baca did not know what was going on, the defense argued.

“The mere fact that Sheriff Baca was sheriff … does not make him criminally responsible for what went on down below,” his attorney, Nathan Hochman said.

Hochman disputed prosecutors’ claims that Baca was driven to act out of worry the FBI investigation would ultimately zero in on his failures to address the jail crisis. To the contrary, the attorney said, Baca had no motive to keep the FBI from investigating his jails because allegations about abusive deputies had been made for years and he had taken steps to correct the issue.

And far from throwing up obstacles in front of the FBI, Hochman said, Baca had wanted only to get information about what was going on in his jails and the identities of potentially corrupt and abusive deputies. He said the sheriff took action because he was being “stonewalled” by his federal counterparts. 

Full Coverage: L.A. County jail system under scrutiny »

Hasn’t this argument been used before by other sheriff’s officials accused of wrongdoing in the jail scandal?

The claim of ignorance was attempted before by Tanaka, who was tried earlier this year on the same charges Baca now faces. He told jurors he had had no hand in the obstruction, which he blamed on Baca. Tanaka was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. He is appealing the conviction.

Along with Tanaka, eight others from the department’s middle and lower ranks have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction. 

Is Baca ill?

Yes. He is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Had he been convicted, he could have faced several years in prison.

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Didn’t Baca at one point have a deal in the case?

Yes. 

Baca, who stepped down as sheriff in 2014 as the scandal engulfed the department, had tried to avoid putting his fate in the hands of a jury. Earlier this year, with the U.S. attorney’s office preparing to seek criminal charges against him, Baca struck a plea deal with prosecutors in which he would admit to a single charge of making false statements to investigators and avoid the more serious obstruction charges. Under the terms of the agreement, prosecutors agreed that Baca would serve no more than six months in prison.

The deal fell apart, however, when U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who has handed down stiff sentences to the other sheriff’s officials convicted in the earlier trials, decided it was too lenient and made clear he intended to put Baca behind bars for a longer time. Baca opted to take his chances at trial.

What were the deliberations like?

In deliberations this week, jurors requested to review several pieces of evidence, including testimony by a former Times reporter and a former assistant sheriff.

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