Lee Baca Convicted of Obstruction of Justice

For 15 years, Lee Baca enjoyed the power that went along with leading the largest sheriff’s department in the United States, but his misconduct in office — obstructing a federal investigation into abuse throughout the jail system — is now set to land him behind the bars of a federal prison.

Former LA County Sheriff Baca was convicted last Thursday of three felonies: Obstruction of justice, conspiracy and lying to federal investigators. The charges stem from Baca’s 2010 involvement in attempting to thwart an FBI investigation into prisoner abuse in LA County jails. Although Baca and his attorneys long held it was his No. 2, Paul Tanaka, who was really at the helm — as the LA Times described it, Baca’s lawyer Nathan Hochman “had tried to convince jurors that while Baca was upset over the FBI’s decision to secretly infiltrate his jails, he never attempted to get in the way of the federal investigation. It was Tanaka alone who directed the effort to foil the federal inquiry, Hochman contended, saying the undersheriff took advantage of the trust Baca put in him to pursue his own agenda.”

Although Tanaka himself was sentenced to five years behind bars for his role in the cover-up, the jury didn’t buy Baca’s story and the former sheriff is awaiting sentencing — although he has already stated he would launch an appeal.

Baca’s now looking at what could be some serious prison time — at least, that’s if the 74-year-old early-stage Alzheimer’s patient doesn’t win the sympathy he’s been seeking.

In July 2016, a plea deal between Baca and prosecutors that would have capped his prison time at six months fell through when U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson found it to be too lenient. At the time, attorneys for Baca argued his deteriorating mental state should be enough to keep him out from behind bars. 

His December 2016 court appearance ended in a mistrial after the jury was hung 11-1 in favor of acquitting the former officer, but in the March trial the jury deliberated 15 hours before handing down the decision and, according to reports in the LA Times, this jury was less forgiving.

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“The leader runs the ship,” the foreman said. “He made the choice to be there. Step up to the plate and be responsible.”

One change in the case came from Anderson’s refusal to allow a psychiatrist to testify that Baca’s Alzheimer’s may have contributed to Baca’s story changing, creating sympathy toward Baca during the December trial.

The former sheriff is just awaiting his next time up to bat, though, according to statements published by NPR: “You’ve known me for a long time,” Baca said. “I am a faith-based person. My mentality is always optimistic. I look forward to winning on appeal.”

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