Once the head of the largest law enforcement agency of its kind in the nation, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was found guilty by a federal jury Wednesday of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and giving false statements in connection with an investigation into corruption and excessive use of force inside the Men’s Central Jail.
Baca, 74, appeared solemn as the court clerk read the jury’s verdict on each count. His wife, Carol, who attended court every day, also offered no reaction.
Baca’s conviction could put him behind bars for up to 20 years.
The eight men and four women of the jury made their decision following almost two days of deliberation after a nearly two-week trial inside a downtown Los Angeles federal courtroom.
The charges against Baca stemmed from an FBI investigation of inmate abuse within Men’s Central Jail in 2011. Prosecutors set out to prove that Baca led efforts to thwart the investigation by hiding an inmate-turned-informant named Anthony Brown within the jail system, so the FBI could no longer interview him. They said he also allowed two sheriff’s sergeants to threaten the lead FBI agent with arrest in front of her home.
The verdict marks a near conclusion to a six-year-long effort to expose inmate abuse and cover-ups by deputies in the jails. Baca is the 10th person to be convicted in connection with the jail corruption scandal and the highest in the chain of command.
Outside the courthouse, the former sheriff appeared emotional but said he would appeal his case. He thanked his attorney, Nathan Hochman, his wife, Carol, and those who supported him.
“I appreciate the jury system however I disagree with this particular verdict,” he said. “I am a faith-based person. I look forward to winning on appeal. I love Los Angeles County. I love the United States of America and I love diversity. It’s just a privilege to be alive. That’s how I feel and I feel good.”
Over the span of the trial, more than a dozen witnesses testified, with most of them called by the prosecution.
Prosecutors also introduced audio clips of an interview between them and Baca in 2013, along with a television appearance he gave. They also presented emails from Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, evidence of calls to and from cellphones, and testimony by several former commanding officers involved with hiding Brown and changing his identity. Each one said they understood their orders came from Baca.
Speaking on behalf of his fellow jurors, the jury foreman told reporters that prosecutors presented their case well, but it was testimony by former Sheriff’s Assistant Chief Cecil Rhambo Jr. who warned the sheriff: “Don’t f--- with the FBI,” that convinced the panel of Baca’s guilt.
“It was his conviction,” the 51-year-old foreman, who didn’t wish to give his name, said, adding that it seemed to the jury that Baca was doing what he could in “protecting his empire.”
Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown said in a news conference later that the verdict sends a warning to law enforcement.
“This verdict sends a clear message that no one is above the law,” Brown said. “Lee Baca knew what was right and what was wrong. He made a decision. That decision was to commit a crime, and he lead others in a conspiracy to obstruct a federal law enforcement investigation into what he described as his jails. When the time came, he lied. He lied to cover up his crimes.”
The verdict came in a second trial for Baca in connection with the jail corruption investigation. He had initially pleaded guilty in July to making false statements to investigators, and he agreed to a plea deal of serving a six-month prison sentence. But U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson rejected the agreement, saying a six-month sentence was too light.
Anderson had sentenced almost all of the nine deputies and those higher in the Sheriff’s Department’s chain of command to federal prison for their involvement in the inmate jail abuse scandal. That includes Tanaka, who was sentenced in June to five years in federal prison.
Baca was eventually indicted on the three counts.
But when his defense team wanted to introduce a mental health expert to explain that Baca may have made false statements because he suffered from early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Anderson severed the trial into two parts so that testimony from the mental health expert could be heard by one jury but not another.
In December, Anderson declared a mistrial after a jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict on the counts of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, with the panel splitting 11-1 in favor of acquittal.
Prosecutors decided to try the former sheriff again, but this time added the charge of giving false statements during an interview with federal investigators.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Brandon Fox told reporters later that he believed allowing the jury to hear Baca’s false statements that were made during an interview and were recorded was likely why they found him guilty.
“Being able to have the false statements, that helped out in a number of ways,” Fox said. “It allowed the jury to hear Mr. Baca throughout the trial. They were able to hear more of the evidence from Mr. Baca and contrast it with what the actions were.”
Former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky said she wasn’t surprised by the verdict and said Rhambo’s testimony made it clear “that somebody was trying to ring an alarm bell that wasn’t heard or received.”
“I think at the end of the day, this is a very tragic end to a long saga and long career,” Krinsky added.
Meanwhile, the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs said in a statement the group supported the verdict as did the American Civil Liberties Union, which was the first to alert the FBI to what was happening in the jails years ago.
“The jury’s decision to convict Lee Baca for obstructing an FBI investigation into widespread abuse of jail inmates was yet another acknowledgment that for many years our county jail system has been broken and must be held up to greater public scrutiny,” Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement.
Hochman, Baca’s defense attorney, who was limited by who and what he could present, had worked throughout the trial to distance his client from the actions of his officers. The prosecution, Hochman said, based its case on testimony by a rookie FBI agent who allowed a convicted criminal to have a cellphone inside the jails. They also isolated four statements made by Baca during a nearly five-hour interview about the investigation.
Outside the courthouse, Hochman said the jury made its decision based on a lack of evidence.
“The government has done a win-at-all-cost approach,” Hochman said. “We fought the good fight every single day in court. The jury system is the hallmark of the American legal system. The jury is only as good as the evidence it gets to consider. Here, the jury did not get to consider all the evidence. but the appellate court will, which we look forward to revealing on appeal.”
A sentencing date has not been set.
Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca’s conviction sends a message but there’s still ‘need for reform’