LOS ANGELES — A Dec. 6 trial date has been set for former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who faces charges of conspiring to obstruct a federal probe into misconduct by jail deputies.
Baca is charged with conspiring to obstruct justice, obstructing justice and lying to the federal government, stemming from his alleged response in 2011 to a covert FBI investigation into corruption and brutality by guards at Men’s Central Jail.
Over objections from Baca’s attorney, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson scheduled the trial date, ruling that delaying the proceedings any longer “isn’t in anybody’s interest — the defendant’s or the public’s.”
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman said he would probably file a motion in September signifying his intent to introduce expert evidence relating to an alleged mental defect his client was suffering in the summer of 2011, at the time of the charged offenses.
Hochman claims the 74-year-old Baca is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and suggests that his client was impaired from the disease five years ago.
When the attorney told the judge Aug. 24 that he may employ such a defense, Anderson offered a curt response: “You mean to say people who suffer from Alzheimer’s don’t know right from wrong?”
The defense asked for a trial date in February or March, arguing that the additional time was needed to study the “huge” amount of evidence provided by government prosecutors as well as documentation from its own medical experts.
Once Hochman files a motion involving the mental defect defense, prosecutors will move to have Baca examined by their own doctors, setting the stage for a battle of the experts.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox gave a preview of his view of what may be the thrust of the defense case.
“We don’t believe any [mental impairment] diagnosis … is relevant,” the prosecutor told the court, adding that such an argument “should be excluded.”
Baca sat silently beside his attorney during the nearly hour-long hearing.
Hochman also indicated he may lodge a motion to have the trial moved out of Los Angeles County based on the suggestion that widespread publicity surrounding the case and related trials could have tainted the jury pool.
In addition, Hochman told the judge that Baca’s earlier guilty plea — which was withdrawn — to a false statements charge was a “unique fact” that was also widely publicized to the detriment of his client.
Anderson had a partial answer to the attorney’s worries.
“Something that doesn’t help is holding press conferences on the courthouse steps,” the judge said, admonishing the defense attorney for speaking to a media throng after earlier hearings.
Asked by Hochman for a sidebar meeting with attorneys at the hearing, Anderson continued to telegraph his displeasure at events outside the courtroom.
“I don’t know why I should hold any sidebars in this case,” the judge said, referring to press leaks of previous sidebars. “I guarantee this will be the last one if I read about it somewhere.”
At his Aug. 12 arraignment, Baca told Anderson that he suffered from periods of “cloudiness in my brain” due to Alzheimer’s disease, but was mentally capable of entering a plea.
The ex-sheriff previously backed out of a plea deal on the lying count, which had been reached with federal prosecutors earlier this year and called for Baca to serve no more than six months in prison.
Anderson rejected the agreement as too lenient, prompting Baca to withdraw his plea instead of being sentenced to as much as five years behind bars.
Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
If convicted of all charges in the updated indictment, Baca could face up to 20 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.