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Start of federal prison sentence for Baca delayed

LOS ANGELES — Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca received a reprieve from prison July 24, with his attorney asking an appellate court to allow the ex-lawman to remain free while he appeals his conviction for conspiring to derail an FBI probe into corruption in the jail system.

Baca, 75, had been scheduled to surrender July 25 to begin serving his three-year prison term. On July 20, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson rejected a request that Baca be allowed to remain free pending his appeal.

But Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, took the request to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals July 24, prompting a delay in his prison surrender.

According to the Daily News, Hochman cited Baca’s age and health and argued that he is not a flight risk or a danger to the community.

Baca was sentenced in May for his conviction on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements. He is expected to serve his time in either Kern County or Oregon. Anderson also ordered Baca to serve a year of supervised release following his prison term, and to pay a $7,500 fine.

In his ruling last week ordering Baca to begin serving his prison time, Anderson said Baca has “failed to raise a substantial question likely to result in reversal or new trial.”

“Both individually and collectively, the court’s evidentiary rulings were not [in] error and did not deprive defendant of his constitutional right to present a defense,” Anderson ruled. “Additionally, sufficient evidence exists to support defendant’s conviction on Count 3 [false statements] and defendant has failed to satisfy his burden to establish that his appeal is not for purposes of delay.”

During Baca’s two trials, prosecutors described the ex-lawman as being the top figure in the multi-part conspiracy, which also involved his former right-hand man, Paul Tanaka, and eight deputies who took orders from the sheriff.

Prosecutors had asked for a two-year prison term, noting that they would ordinarily seek about four years, but took into account Baca’s age and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. During the sentencing hearing, however, Anderson excoriated Baca, telling him that if it hadn’t been for the ex-lawman’s health, Baca would have received the same five-year term given to Tanaka, the former undersheriff.

Anderson told Baca his Alzheimer’s diagnosis is not a “get-out-of-jail card.”

Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years — was first tried in December 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 acquitting the former sheriff, and Anderson combined all three counts in the retrial.

Baca did not take the stand in either trial.

The charges stemmed from events six years ago when a cell phone was discovered in the hands of an inmate at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone to the FBI, which had been 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.

The charges against the various sheriff’s officials involved a host of illegal acts, including a 2011 incident in which two sheriff’s investigators confronted an FBI agent in the driveway leading to her apartment and falsely told her they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest. Baca denied having advance knowledge of the illicit attempt to intimidate the federal agent.

Prior to the first trial, Baca had pleaded guilty to the lying count, but subsequently backed out of the plea deal — which called for him to serve no more than six months in prison — after the judge 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 then indicted on the three felony counts for which he was subsequently convicted.

Baca became sheriff in December 1998 and won re-election three times. 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 Baca to retire the following month.

Hochman has argued that Anderson erred in barring jurors from hearing evidence of Baca’s “cooperation” with both the federal probe and an independent county review board, and that the panel should have heard about the ex-sheriff’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

The attorney also claimed the jury should have been allowed to consider evidence of improvements Baca made in the training of jail guards to de-escalate problems and successfully deal with violent and/or mentally ill inmates. Baca was not charged with any instances of jail brutality.

In addition to the 10 people convicted in connection with the Baca conspiracy case, 11 other now-former sheriff’s department members were also convicted of various crimes uncovered during the FBI investigation.