LOS ANGELES — A judge rejected a defense motion Oct. 31 to move the corruption case against former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca out of the region, and turned down an attempt to have the lead prosecutor taken off the forthcoming trial.
In a nearly two-hour hearing, defense attorney Nathan Hochman argued that pretrial publicity, specifically dealing with his client’s guilty plea, has “saturated” the community, making it impossible to find an impartial jury.
“This is what the media has feasted upon — that a sheriff of L.A. County has said, ‘I’m guilty,’” Hochman said, referring to Baca’s now-defunct plea deal in which the retired lawman came to court in February and pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eddie Jauregui countered that the media also reported on the reasons Baca gave for withdrawing from the plea deal, and argued that juror prejudice could not be presumed for the entire judicial district, the nation’s largest.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson pointed out that in the trial of Baca’s second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, it was “not difficult” to find potential jurors.
Baca’s plea hearing was not a dramatic event “likely to be imprinted in the minds of [potential] jurors,” the judge said before denying the motion.
A trial date of Dec. 6 has been set in the case, in which Baca faces federal obstruction of justice charges that carry a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
A motion for the recusal of Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox — who spearheaded successful prosecutions of Tanaka and other former Sheriff’s Department officials — was also denied.
Fox, the defense argued, could be called to the stand as a potential witness for Baca to discuss the interview his office had with the ex-sheriff that resulted in the plea deal.
Using a football analogy that amused some members of the audience, Anderson said the defense attorney’s attempt to disqualify Fox was akin to the sort of motion “the Buffalo Bills might make to try and disqualify [rival New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady.”
The judge pointed out that there were a handful of others who attended the meeting with prosecutors that could be called to the witness stand in place of Fox.
“This motion seems to be aimed at eliminating a member of the prosecution team,” Anderson said.
Baca is charged with helping to obstruct a federal probe into misconduct by jail deputies. Prosecutors contend he conspired with others, lied to the federal government and attempted to derail a 2011 covert FBI investigation into corruption and brutality by guards at Men’s Central Jail.
Hochman says the 74-year-old ex-lawman is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was impaired by the illness at the time of the charged offenses five years ago.
In August, Anderson ordered a psychological examination to determine if Baca suffers from any mental impairment that would prevent him from understanding the corruption charges against him or assisting in his own defense. While that issue is expected to be discussed at a Nov. 21 hearing, the judge ruled that the results of the examination be filed under seal.
A different judge recently denied Baca’s attempt to disqualify Anderson, who has overseen other high-profile cases involving the FBI investigation into civil rights abuses at county jails.
Defense attorneys had argued that Anderson was already convinced of Baca’s guilt. However, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright denied the motion and responded in an 11-page order that Baca’s concerns were unfounded.
Baca previously backed out of a plea deal on the lying count — which called for him to serve no more than six months in prison — after Anderson rejected the agreement as too lenient. If Baca had not withdrawn from the plea, he could have been handed a sentence of five years behind bars.
He was subsequently indicted on the new charges. Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — claims he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that Tanaka was in charge of the operation. Ten ex-sheriff’s officials — including Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case.
Tanaka, who alleges his former boss initiated the plan, was sentenced by Anderson to five years in prison, but is free pending appeal.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
A federal appellate panel upheld the convictions of seven former sheriff’s department officials convicted in the conspiracy.