A “Tragic” Fall
“This is a sad day for our community,” said U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson on the morning of Friday, May 12, the day when he sentenced former Los Angeles County sheriff Lee Baca to three years in a federal prison.
Baca’s “fall from such heights is tragic for many reasons,” Anderson told the packed courtroom in a fierce prelude to the actual sentencing. Yet however painful Baca’s fall might be, the judge said, it was not enough to counter balance the necessity to hold the former sheriff accountable.
The government’s trio of lawyers had spent had spent the last nine months, which included two different criminal trials, working to convict the once powerful and popular Baca, after Anderson had dynamited Baca’s plea agreement with the feds in July 2016, pronouncing the 0 to 6 month sentencing range that was part of the agreement, “would trivialize the seriousness of his offenses, his lack of respect for the law and the gross abuse of the public trust….”
Yet, as culpable as the government prosecutors held the former sheriff to be, they only recommended that the former sheriff be given a 24-month sentence, due to his age and his medical condition.
(Baca will be 75 on May 27, and he has been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s Disease plus the beginnings of dementia, both of which are progressive, and can only be slowed down, not cured.)
The judge was not swayed by the prosecution, and dismissed the defense’s argument that it was Paul Tanaka, not Lee Baca, who was the primary bad actor in the conspiracy to obstruct justice, that led to indictments and convictions for ten department members, including Baca.
Anderson had presided over all six of the LASD obstruction trials—which included two trials for Baca, after the jury deadlocked 11 to one for acquittal in the former sheriff’s December 2016 trial—thus, by last Friday he seemed to have memorized even the tiniest of details of the combination of cases, and looked to have already drawn some firm conclusions.
“Mr. Baca knew what kind of person Tanaka was,” Anderson said. He was warned about Tanaka and warned about civil rights violations in the jails, and he failed to stop them.
When talking about the Tanaka issue in particular, Anderson leaned forward to stare at Baca with the bird-of-prey posture he employs when he is most intent on making sure no one misses his point. “You were all too happy to let people like Mr. Tanaka do your dirty work for you.” But Paul Tanaka “was not some rogue deputy,” said Anderson sternly. “You knew exactly what kind of person you were promoting.”
Anderson pronounced the relationship as being akin to the “good cop-bad cop routine” found in “a B movies.”
“Keeping your hands clean does not make you less culpable.” He said this in a tone that suggested that the clean hands strategy, might in some ways be worse. (Although likely not worse than Tanaka, whose pre-sentencing lecture by Anderson was not stern, but excoriating.
Baca betrayed “inmates who were his responsibility” who were consequently “brutalized by deputies” whom the former sheriff then protected, said Anderson, continuing to address Baca directly. “Your actions embarrassed the thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line every day.”
The Defense and the Prosecution
Before Anderson’s ferocious pre-sentence sermon, defense attorney Nathan Hochman spoke about why the judge should not give his client any prison time at all.
He cited a famous U.S. Supreme Court case concerning criminal sentencing, United States v. Booker, which allowed judges to deviate from federal sentencing guidelines that, up until Booker, had become nearly unbreachable walls.
Booker, Hochman said, freed the court from the shackles of the guidelines and instructed judges to “look at the person as an individual,” which was obviously the point he hoped Judge Anderson would take in looking at his client.
Hochman briefly described Lee Baca’s far less than sunny upbringing in East Los Angeles, how he was raised by his grandmother and his grandfather, not his parents, and how, as a kid, he had “to care for a developmentally disabled” adult uncle with whom he shared a bedroom.
The attorney spent a lot of time on Baca’s accomplishments, his education-based incarceration program inside the county’s jails, how he managed to get the funds for the creation of a much-praised regional crime lab, and other career high points. “Sheriff Baca has a lifetime’s worth of “deposits in the bank of good conduct,” said Hochman, which should be “drawn on now.”
As he had done in his written arguments, Hochman spent the most time on the former sheriff’s medical condition, which he said, along with Baca’s age, and his high profile law enforcement background would put him at great risk inside prison, both from guards and from other prisoners.
“He was really one of the good guys,” concluded Hochman, “who was responsible for changing people’s lives for the better.”
When Hochman sat down, prosecutor Fox, as expected, presented a very different point of view.
Baca’s “Education Based Incarceration” program “came after” August and September 2011, when the former sheriff was busy obstructing justice, Fox observed dryly.
As for the good deed doing Hochman had listed? “That was his job. He was paid to do those things.”
Moreover, Baca might feel empathetic toward the homeless and the mentally ill, but “the rights of the mentally ill were being violated” regularly under Mr. Baca’s reign, Fox said. Even now, he added, the department has a federal monitor who keeps an eye on whether conditions for the mentally ill are adequately improving.
His was a “shameful era,”Fox said with a gaze toward Baca, who sat at the defense table in his blue pinstriped suit, his spine ramrod straight.
As for Hochman’s assertions that Baca wasn’t responsible for brutality in the jails, that this was more Paul Tanaka’s doing, Fox reminded those in the courtroom of Baca’s now infamous declaration made in a meeting in September 2011, with then U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte and other federal officials:
“I’m the goddamn sheriff! And these are my goddamn jails!”
Baca “abused the power that was entrusted to him. He threw the people whose careers were entrusted to him under the bus. The county has paid millions of dollars for actions made under Mr. Baca’s reign,” Fox said.
“If you take away Alzheimer’s” Fox explained, the government would recommend a much different sentence than the 24 months they were proposing.
The sentencing guidelines for Baca’s offenses suggested 41 to 51 months in prison, and could go up to 60 months. And the probation report suggested the full 60 months, Fox noted.
Still, given the circumstances, Fox said, 24 months was the “right balance.
But, the prosecutor added, if the judge planned to go too far below the guidelines, the government hoped that the court would slap Baca with a hefty fine.
“He has substantial assets, plus substantial money from his government pension,” Fox added.
(The former sheriff will get approximately $328,000 annually in pension payments.)
No Get Out of Jail Card
Of course, with the three-year sentence, Anderson went substantially above the 2-years prosecutors Brandon Fox, Lizabeth Rhodes, and Eddie Jauregui had recommended.
“Alzheimer’s disease is not a get out of jail card,” Anderson said shortly before he announced the sentence itself.
If not for Baca’s “cognitive impairment,” said the judge, and if not for his career in public service, “you would have received the same [five year] sentence as Mr. Tanaka.”
Baca was “at least as culpable as Tanaka,” Anderson repeated. “His actions” would not have occurred “without you.”
Anderson told Baca that “a custodial sentence”—meaning prison—“is an important step in restoring the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system.”
It was also a “necessary deterrent to our public officials, and to law enforcement.
“Blind obedience to a corrupt culture has consequences.”
After the fall
Outside, on the courthouse steps, Acting United States attorney Sandra R. Brown told the waiting cameras that, “Rather than fulfill his sworn duty to uphold the law and protect the public, Lee Baca made a decision to protect what he viewed as his empire, and then he took actions in an effort to simply protect himself.”
A few minutes later still, Baca came out and addressed the crowd and the cameras that, by the end of the day, would make his sentencing a national story. Unlike when he was in court, the former sheriff had affixed his favorite lapel pin to his suit. This was the quarter-sized sheriff’s star pin that Anderson had ruled Baca could not wear during his second trial, after the prosecution contended that it was prejudicial. Baca liked the U.S. Marines pin he’d worn during sentencing and off and on during the trial, but he preferred this one.
After thanking his wife, Carol, and his attorneys, Nathan Hochman and Brianna Abrams, Baca launched into an upbeat, if somewhat whimsical monologue.
He’d been ‘a blessed person,” he said—not “just because I’ve been in the sheriff’s department…But I’m certainly blessed to be a human being who loves people unconditionally. I’ve taken a lot of hits over the years,” Baca continued. “There’s no police chief in America who hasn’t taken hits, because of freedom of speech. And I’m a protector of freedom of speech. You think that the media and I don’t like each other. But we do. It isn’t an easy job….”
Given what had just occurred in the courtroom, Baca seemed to be in a remarkably good mood. Maybe he had expected worse, such as the five-year sentence that Mr. Tanaka received. Or maybe he was just glad to have it over with—except for the appeals. Or maybe, with a sort of make lemonade attitude, he was hoping to regard the whole thing as a sort of Zen adventure, despite the difficulties that it could not help but bring.
Putting Down a Footprint
After Baca and his entourage headed homeward, attorney Miriam Krinsky—who is a former federal prosecutor and who now runs the nonprofit, Fair and Just Prosecution—said Anderson’s decision to go above the prosecution’s recommendation was not surprising.
“We are in a moment when community trust is very fragile, when some members of our community are living in fear of government,” she said. “Judge Anderson made clear that trust in government and trust in law enforcement matters. And judges have an independent, invaluable role in that dynamic.”
Krinsky paused. “I think we saw judge Anderson put a strong footprint down in terms of an independent judiciary,” she said finally.
“When our community is being threatened—whether that threat is from law enforcement or any other member of government—the judges have a role to play,” Krinsky concluded. “And Percy Anderson made his role crystal clear when he imposed that sentence of three years.”
Still, said Krinsky, “No one should be joyful at this outcome.” The sentencing may be just. But, “it’s not a happy ending to the story.’