At 3:00 on Monday afternoon, in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s attorneys made the case for why the lead federal prosecutor, Brandon Fox, should be recused from Baca’s upcoming trial, as well as why the trial venue should be moved from Los Angeles. Both of these motions were denied by Judge Anderson.
A BIT OF BACKSTORY
Mr. Baca, if you’ll remember, pleaded guilty in February to one count of lying to federal officials. In return for his plea, he was to receive a sentence of between 0 and 6 months in prison.
Judge Anderson rejected the plea because of the low sentencing range, saying it trivialized the harm that Baca had done to the department and to the community at large.
In mid-October, US District Court Judge Otis D. Wright, II, denied a motion filed by Baca’s attorneys to recuse Judge Anderson from presiding over the former sheriff’s trial.
THE MOTION TO REMOVE PROSECUTOR BRANDON FOX FROM THE CASE
Standing before Judge Anderson, former sheriff’s defense lawyer, Nathan Hochman, cited a need to call lead prosecutor Brandon Fox as a witness in the trial as the reason for the motion to remove the prosecutor from the case.
Hochman argued that Fox is “uniquely qualified” to provide testimony regarding the Baca’s demeanor—whether Baca exhibited “physical manifestations of Mr. Baca’s being confused, distracted, lucid, tired, or alert”—during the interview Fox and a handful of others conducted in 2013 that resulted in the former sheriff’s plea deal. Baca has, as most readers are aware, been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease. The diagnosis was made public in late June (although WLA broke the news the month before).
There were five others present for the interview who could be called to the witness stand instead of Fox, according to the team of prosecutors, which along with Fox, included Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lizabeth Rhodes and Margaret Carter, plus two FBI agents.
The motion appeared to be less about “securing the testimony of a witness,” and “more about kicking of the prosecutor.” Anderson said. It would be like the Buffalo Bills’ coach asking to disqualify Tom Brady from a game, the judge quipped.
It’s also worth noting that Baca has added a new member to the defense team, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Tinos Diamantatos, who was present on Monday, but stayed silent.
SEEKING A NEW TRIAL LOCATION
Along with the motion to recuse Fox, Hochman argued in favor of moving the former sheriff’s trial to another part of California due to a “tsunami of highly prejudicial media coverage.”
Hochman told Anderson jurors would not be able to put Baca’s previous admission of guilt “out of their heads,” arguing that potential jurors within the Central District—or in LA—have been subject to a deluge of “inflammatory” media coverage regarding the case.
Judge Anderson regularly interrupted Hochman to ask questions or make comments about the validity of the defense’s arguments. Anderson said that it was ironic that the defense would ask for a change of venue when Hochman gave an interview to a member of the press “the same day the motion was filed.” It was a theme Anderson seemed to like. At a previous hearing, the judge noted that Baca’s lead attorney seemed fond of holding press conferences on the steps of the courthouse.
In the prosecution’s response to the request to move the trial, Jauregui pointed out that the Central District of California is the “largest judicial district in the nation.”
If the question is “Can this person get a fair trial?”, the answer is “Yes,” said Jauregui.
Judge Anderson also called attention to the fact that not all of the 7.5 million potential jurors residing within the Central District’s Western Division are in Los Angeles County. The division also includes communities more than 200 miles away in counties stretching up the coast. Jurors could come from as far away as Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo Counties.
Furthermore, it “was not difficult to find impartial jurors” for former undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s trial, Anderson said. As for Baca’s case, the “decibel level of media attention” has also diminished somewhat over the past few months, the judge noted.
STRIKING A PARAGRAPH FROM THE INDICTMENT
There was, by the way, a third motion, albeit one that elicited less drama than the first two. In this last motion, Baca and his attorneys wanted to strike the following paragraph, 7(b), from the indictment:
From no later than December 2010 and continuing to at least July 2011, allegations surfaced that LASD deputies working on the 3000 floor of [Men’s Central Jail], who called themselves the “3000 Boys,” exhibited gang-like and violent behavior, used excessive force against inmates, and falsified reports to cover up wrongdoing.”
The defense team reasoned that the information “goes beyond alleging the elements” of Baca’s charges, and “is irrelevant and is extremely prejudicial.”
Anderson said that for the paragraph to be excised, it would have to include information not related to the defendant. In this case, however, the paragraphs above 7(b) qualify the information by stating that Baca was “well aware” of the allegations of abuse described in paragraph 7(b).
After nearly two hours of discussion between Anderson, Hochman, and the federal prosecutors, the judge denied each of the three motions.
All parties have been ordered to appear at a mental health competency hearing for Baca on Nov 21 at 3:00pm.
THIS STORY WAS UPDATED at 12:02 P.M, November 1, 2016