Sentencing the Sheriff
At 8:30 a.m. Friday, May 12, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca will be sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson for his part in what is colloquially known as Operation Pandora’s Box, a series of orders and actions that attempted to derail a federal investigation into brutality and corruption by deputies in LA county’s jail system.
These same orders and actions have, to date, resulted in nine obstruction of justice convictions, and one plea deal. Eight of those convicted for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice have already been sentenced to federal prison, including former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, the man who, for years, everyone assumed would be the next sheriff once Lee Baca stepped down. Former captain Tom Carey, who made a plea deal with the feds, will soon be sentenced for perjury based on statements he made on the witness stand in previous obstruction trials.
Another 10 former department members have been convicted for various forms of civil rights abuses, most having to do with beating inmates in LA County’s out-of-control jails, and then falsifying reports to portray the inmate/victims as having criminally attacked the deputies.
And yet, for many of the fifteen years that he ran the world’s largest sheriff’s department, Baca was liked and respected by the majority of the residents of Los Angeles County.
So what kind of sentence is the former sheriff likely to receive? And what sentence should he get for the charges of which he’s been convicted, and also for his indirect responsibility of being the man at the top of the departmental ladder during the years when abuse and corruption was permitted to thrive inside the LASD almost entirely unchecked?
The answers to these questions are not simple.
The Defense Pushes for No Prison Time
Baca’s defense team, led by Nathan Hochman with Brianna Abrams, is pushing for the former sheriff to get probation with home detention and community service.
In his sentencing memo, Hochman argued that his client “dedicated his heart, his soul, and his life to serving the people of Los Angeles County for almost 50 years.” To bolster this position, Hochman and company included close to 250 letters of support for the former sheriff, many written by people whose names you would know such as Tommy Lasorda of Dodger fame, former California governor Grey Davis, Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, and football great Rev. Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier.
The letter from civil rights attorney Connie Rice, is particularly interesting in that, unlike many of the others, she wrote of the complexity of the situation by acknowledging Baca’s “failures,” which Rice wrote “stand in stark contrast to his long running advocacy of constitutional policing and humane rehabilitation.”
The former sheriff “consistently risked backing policing and rehabilitation visions that were ahead of his profession’s status quo,” she wrote, “and by doing so, he helped pave the way for their eventual acceptance.” Then Rice spent a couple of pages detailing those “visions.” Yet she also wrote that his “tenure in law enforcement’’ contained “uneven, unfinished and even unsuccessful advocacy.” And “it will end with the record in this serious case.”
The Alzhiemers’ Factor
Arguably, the strongest part of Hochman’s pitch for leniency centered around Baca’s diagnosis of early stage Alzheimer’s disease, and now possibly mild dementia. (We know little of the details of those diagnoses in that the long passages of hard medical information about his client are entirely redacted from the memo.)
“Medically,” Hochman concluded, “a prison sentence hastens [Baca’s] deterioration of cognitive deficits and dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease and prevents him from receiving medication that could change the course of his progression. Any society,” Hochman added, quoting a 2008 case, United States v. Coughlin “‘would deride a legal system that imposed a sentence that threatened the life of the defendant unnecessarily.’
“In this case, a sentence of imprisonment is essentially a cognitive death sentence given the progression of Mr. Baca’s Alzheimer’s disease.”
The Feds Take the Middle Ground
Assistant United States Attorneys Brandon Fox, Lizabeth Rhodes, and Eddie Jauregui want Baca to do prison time but their sentencing memo, which was filed on March 24, suggests a comparatively generous 24 months. On one hand, a two-year prison sentence for Baca is not insignificant given the cognitive health issues he now faces. He will turn 75 on May 27, and the government’s experts also agree is suffering from early stage Alzheimer’s, which will assuredly worsen (although the prosecutors dispute Hochman’s “death sentence” characterization). But when put up against the sentences handed to the seven former department members to whom he and Paul Tanaka gave orders that led to obstructive actions, Mr. Baca’s proposed 24 months might seem to some to be on the short side.
(The sentences for the other defendants convicted obstruction of justice are: Deputy James Sexton – 18 months (now shortened by rule 35 motion to five months prison time), Deputy Gerard Smith – 21 months, Deputy Mickey Manzo – 24 months, Sergeant Maricela Long – 24 months, Sergeant Scott Craig – 33 months, Lieutenant Gregory Thompson – 37 months , Lieutenant Stephen Leaving – 41 months, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka – 60 months.)
Yet, the prosecutors wrote, while “the defendant’s crimes showed that corruption went all the way to the top of the LASD, his crimes were “not as serious as the crimes by the members of the LASD who were convicted of beating inmates and filing false reports in order to have people charged with offenses they did not commit.”
Furthermore, they wrote, while Baca was “at the top of the conspiracy,” the evidence does not show that he was as involved in the hiding of Brown and tampering with witnesses” as some of his subordinates were.” Moreover, “the government does not view defendant as culpable for the culture within the LASD as defendant Tanaka was.”
The government also made it clear that their recommendation was affected by Baca’s condition. His “age, diagnosis and prognosis are very different from others who came before this Court in these related cases.”
Letters and More Letters
While all the letters submitted to the court in Baca’s behalf by his attorneys are public record, those who wrote letters to Judge Anderson urging against leniency are not public, and most will not be considered by the court unless the letter writer is in some way related to the case.
The letter from former LA County sheriff’s deputy James Sexton was one of those accepted by Judge Anderson. Sexton was, of course, one of the eight already sentenced to prison for obstruction of justice. (As we reported here, for a combination of reasons, in March of this year, Judge Anderson agreed to reduce the former deputy’s sentence in response to what is called a Rule 33 motion.)
In his letter, Sexton pushed for Anderson to hand down a substantial sentence, as did several who wrote letters to Anderson that WLA obtained).
(You can read Sexton’s Letter here: The Honorable Percy Anderson Letter of Consideration – Sheriff Baca)
“Mr. Baca,” Sexton wrote, was “positioning” himself as “fragile or a victim,” while in reality the former sheriff is “a capable political operator who can summon hundreds of powerful supporters armed with plausible stories that require your consideration and leniency.” Yet Baca should be held to “no less of a standard than his subordinates,” wrote Sexton. “Mr. Baca is a victim of the totality of his decisions, which includes his choice for undersheriff….”
Reading Tea Leaves
So what will Anderson do? It is difficult to read those particularly tea leaves with confidence.
Former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky believes that some prison time is likely. This “will send the message that accountability can and must extend to the highest level of the LASD,” she wrote in an email to WitnessLA.
Krinsky—now the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, and previously the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence—noted that the question of sentencing Baca marks “a tragic end to a long career of public service.”
Yet she also wrote “obstruction of an FBI investigation aimed at addressing civil rights abuses in our jails necessarily comes at a high cost…”
Judge Anderson seems more likely to take that last point of view. He was, after all, the jurist who dynamited Baca’s plea bargain last year because he didn’t think the 0 to 6 month sentencing range mutually agreed upon by the defense and the prosecution was appropriate. And, remember, with the plea agreement, the former sheriff was only admitting to a single count of lying federal officials.
Now, he is convicted of the lying charge, plus obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
On the other hand, in the past two weeks, a pile of court papers submitted both by the defense and the prosecution have been sealed from public view. One presumes the documents have to do with Baca’s medical condition. So, perhaps there are mitigating factors of which the rest of us are unaware, but that will affect Anderson’s sentencing strategy.
Or maybe not.
We will find out very shortly
So…as always….stay tuned.
POST SCRIPT: The Warning Signs LA County Missed With Lee Baca