Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is one step closer to prison after a federal appeals court today rejected a request to reconsider the appeal of the ex-lawman’s conviction on charges of obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI.
The 76-year-old former sheriff, who has Alzheimer’s disease, was sentenced in May 2017 to three years in federal prison, but has remained free pending appeal. In February, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena rejected his first attempt.
In Friday’s decision, the court denied Baca’s petition for rehearing before a full panel of 11 judges. The ruling does not automatically mean Baca will be going to prison. He could now appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Baca’s attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment.
The ex-sheriff was convicted in Los Angeles federal court on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements. During his two trials, prosecutors described the ex-lawman as being the top figure in a multi-part conspiracy, which also involved his former right-hand man, Paul Tanaka, and eight deputies who took orders from the sheriff.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years — was first tried in December 2016 on obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice counts, and prosecutors had planned a second trial on the false statements count.
But a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal, and the judge in downtown Los Angeles combined all three counts in the retrial that ended with Baca’s conviction. Baca did not take the stand in either trial.
The charges stemmed from events more than seven years ago when a cellphone was discovered in the hands of an inmate/informant at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone to the FBI, which was conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.
At that point, sheriff’s officials closed ranks and began an attempt to halt the formerly covert investigation by concealing the inmate-turned- informant from federal prosecutors, who had issued a summons for his grand jury appearance, prosecutors said.
Baca became sheriff in December 1998 and won re-election on several occasions. He was poised to run again in 2014, but federal indictments unsealed in December 2013, related to excessive force in the jails and obstruction of that investigation, led him to retire the following month.
In addition to the 10 people convicted in connection with the Baca conspiracy case, 11 other now-former sheriff’s department members also were convicted of various crimes uncovered during the FBI investigation.
During arguments before the Pasadena appeals panel in November, Baca attorney Benjamin Coleman contended that the trial judge in the case had abused his discretion by barring jurors from hearing evidence of the former sheriff’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Coleman argued that the ruling could have affected all of Baca’s criminal convictions and urged the appellate panel to overturn the guilty verdicts.
But the court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by rejecting as unreliable testimony about the extent of the disease’s impact on Baca when he lied to investigators.
Coleman argued that Baca’s conviction for making false statements during an FBI interview in 2013 was the direct result of mild impairment caused by early stages of the disease. Baca was diagnosed with the disease in May 2014.
During the FBI interview, which focused on events in 2011, Baca was found guilty because he “couldn’t remember every single little detail from two years earlier,” Coleman alleged. But prosecutors responded that while Baca may have been in the early stages of the disease in 2013, the defense’s own expert witness could not prove that the ex-lawman was likely to have been suffering from memory loss at the time of the interview.
“What the jury decided, ultimately, was that this was a man who believed he was above the law but wasn’t,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bram Alden said.