The Retrial of Lee Baca

U.S. Supreme Court Says “NO” To Former Sheriff Lee Baca’s Appeal—Opening the Path to Prison

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Monday morning, the United States Supreme Court denied former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca’s petition for a writ of certiorari, which is a request for the nation’s highest court to review the decision of a lower court.

If SCOTUS says no, which is what happened Monday,  legally speaking, that’s the ball game.

Since the Supreme Court hears only 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year, a trip to the Supremes was inarguably a long shot.

In Baca’s case, Monday’s news means the matter reverts to the decision of the 9th Circuit, which last February affirmed Baca’s 2017 conviction for charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, and making false statement to federal investigators—all charges that came about when the once-powerful sheriff got in the way of a federal investigation into brutality and corruption in LA County’s scandal-plagued jail system.

The former sheriff was, however,  allowed to continued to remain out on bail while waiting to hear what the Supreme Court was going to do.

Now,  Baca’s case will come back to the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who—barring anything unforeseen—will set a surrender date for him to begin his three-year federal prison sentence.

Baca was convicted of the three federal charges on the afternoon of March 15, 2017, by an eight-man four-woman jury. The jurors deliberated for approximately fourteen hours before reaching their verdict.

It was Lee Baca’s second trial.

When the former sheriff was tried the first time around in December of 2016, the jury declared itself hopelessly deadlocked after 24 hours of deliberation, and Judge Anderson declared a mistrial.

Two months after his conviction at the end of trial two, Anderson sentenced Baca to three years in federal prison.

“Alzheimer’s disease is not a get out of jail card,” Anderson said just before he announced the former sheriff’s sentence on May 12, 2017.

(Baca was first officially diagnosed as having some kind of cognitive impairments on May 13, 2014, and WitnessLA broke the news of his early Alzheimer’s diagnosis in May 2016.)

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 counterbalance the necessity to hold the former sheriff accountable.

The former sheriff betrayed “inmates who were his responsibility” who were consequently “brutalized by deputies” whom the former sheriff then protected, continued Anderson.  He then addressed Baca directly. “Your actions embarrassed the thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line every day.”


The issues argued

When Baca appealed to the 9th Circuit, his attorneys contested a list of issues they hoped would persuade the appeals panel to reverse the former sheriff’s conviction.

Significant among those issues was the fact that Baca’s defense team had wished to bring in UCLA psychiatrist Dr. James Spar, to testify about Baca’s diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, and what such a diagnosis suggested about his cognitive ability in the years prior to his diagnosis.

Specifically, the defense wanted Spar to tell the jury about what he described as the likelihood that the former sheriff was suffering cognitive impairment during the four-and-a-half-hour interview with federal officials on April 12, 2013, during which time he allegedly lied to the feds on four different occasions.

Judge Anderson ultimately ruled against Dr.Spar being permitted to testify, writing:

“Evidence linking defendant’s current diagnosis to the charges is entirely speculative and inadmissible, is the product of unreliable methodology, artificially limited facts, and bare speculation.1/ Indeed, undefined pronouncements including those in which Dr. Spar opines that defendant’s current diagnosis “may have been demonstrating clinical symptoms” and that there was an “increased probability” that defendant’s condition “negatively affected his ability” in 2013 would not help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine a fact in issue and would only serve to confuse the jury….”

Early in the appellate process, the issue about the exclusion of Dr. Spar seemed perhaps the most promising—especially given the fact that, when the 9th Circuit panel granted Baca bail, they wrote that that the defense attorneys’ point about the excused expert witness was “at least ‘fairly debatable,’” given that “the exclusion of the expert’s testimony was ‘directly relevant and material’ with respect to Baca’s claim that he lacked the requisite mens rea for the false statements charge.”

(“Mens rea” means criminal intent or guilty mind, in other words, an individual’s awareness of the fact that his or her conduct is criminal.)

Moreover, wrote the appeals court panel, “if that substantial question is determined favorably to defendant on appeal, that decision is likely to result in reversal or an order for a new trial of all counts on which imprisonment has been imposed.”

But, although at the November 2018 hearing the judges asked a lot of questions of both Baca’s attorney and the government’s attorney on the topic, when it came to writing their opinion, the panel concluded that the district court “did not abuse its discretion in rejecting Dr. Spar’s testimony as unreliable given his speculation about whether Baca suffered from cognitive impairments when making his false statements, and, if so, how those impairments affected his answers.”

Nor did the exclusion of that evidence “deny Baca his constitutional right to present a defense,” as the Baca’s attorneys had suggested, wrote the panel.

The panel of judges also refuted other points put forward by Baca’s attorneys in their appeal, such as their claim that Judge Anderson wrongly insisted on “empaneling an anonymous jury.”

The district court’s decision to empanel an anonymous jury, wrote the justices, “was reasonable in light of the highly publicized nature of this case, Baca’s and his co-conspirator’s positions as former high- ranking law enforcement officers, and the nature of the charges at issue.”

Anderson also “minimized any risk of prejudice” to Baca, the 9th wrote, “by instructing the jury that an anonymous jury was utilized to protect the jurors’ privacy and was unrelated to Baca’s guilt or innocence.”

When Baca’s lawyers approached the Supreme Court they focused on only two points. One was the issue of the anonymous jury. The second point was Judge Anderson’s use of the word “corruptly” in the jury instructions having to do with the charge of obstruction of justice, which Baca’s team contended was incorrect and thus should invalidate the conviction.

(If you want to read the full argument, you can find it here.)

In any case, the high court evidently did not find either of the two points persuasive enough.

Photo at top of Lee Baca taken in late 2013 by Saxon Brice.

20 Comments

  • He was a great sheriff for LA County. The Feds retaliated against him because he dared to investigate the corrupt FBI for breaking state law by smuggling in contraband into the jail. In doing so, the FBI endangered deputies and other inmates. Meh, but who cares right? The FBI broke the law and nothing happens to them. Just Baca and 12 other deputies. Corrupt Feds.

    • “The FBI broke the law and nothing happens to them.”

      And this breach went unremarked all the way up the appellate Federal court ladder to the

      U.S. Supreme Court.

      • Actually, I’m wrong: the breach did elicit court attention early on, and the decision was that the Federal investigation–Federal Law–trumped state law, and that decision stood.

    • Wait, wasn’t the same crooked Department of Justice and FBI, ran by criminals like Loretta Lynch, FBI Director Jimbo Comey who lied to the federal courts to illegally trap any and all Trump associates? When they could not prove any Russian Collusion they got them for the classic charges “obstrucción/lying” or anything along those lines. Same as they did Baca.

      I guess the FBI can’t catch real criminals, only political foes, for the crime of fighting their framing.

      The only criminals who have not been charged with anything are the Clintons and Bidens, they want them as presidents instead.

      • @ Bastard – Like Trump said he loves you less educated fools. BTW would you let him grab your wife’s you know what

    • Gonna have to disagree with you, hoss. Baca was an absentee landlord. He let Tanaka run the day-to-day operations while he (Baca) engaged in his new-age, psycho babble endeavors. Don’t get me wrong, Baca was a very smart guy. But he ceded power to his #1 and it ended up biting him in the butt.

      Baca had every right to be mad and insulted when he found out that Famous But Incompetent failed to notify him about the investigation. Would they have done that to Block? Oh, hell no. But his move should have been limited to an angry call to the DOJ to air his grievance and then offer his assistance.

      I remember talking to fellow deputies about Baca’s belief that bringing in a cell phone was a felony. It’s a statute only he as sheriff could give permission to violate, and it was just a misdemeanor. And that dang pesky supremacy clause threw him for a loop. I personally blame Tanaka and the ICIB Capt. Carey for not reeling Baca in. It would have saved all of them criminal convictions.

  • This evil, corrupt being is responsible for thoroughly destroying and deliberately inflicting many years of pain and suffering on so many of his most dedicated employees, all for his own pleasure.

    His Federal Criminal Conviction for Obstruction of Justice is the least of his crimes. Grateful that at least this finally caught up with him.

  • Baca was enabled by hordes of self serving fools who cared little about the institution they were supposed to be leading. It was always about them and little more. The same crowd was still in charge under McDonnell, and they didn’t give a rat’s ass about the institution or the line staff. Hopefully Sheriff V can wipe that self-serving DNA stain from the department’s legacy.

    • And now the entire command staff to include Sheriff Villanueva is filled with self serving fools, right Captain B.

      • @ Temple and Broadway – So Captain B is one of those LT’s who would never promote to Captain but I guess it pays to follow AV all over the place – I mean the guy lives in AV’s shed – not even the garage.

  • Baca let power go to his head and let Felon & former U/S Tanaka run the Department to the ground. Baca could have killed the virus, instead he incubated it. Guess he really suffered from a diet of lead paint chips and head trauma. Baca did come from humble beginnings however, somewhere along the way he fell from grace.

    Keep Dreaming – There are plenty of corrosive opportunists on AV’s command team. They were a core part of Tanaka’s enforcers. Looks like they fooled AV in pursuit of their own ends. Don’t worry their praise of AV isn’t some esoteric mystery; it’s a cost of working for AV and, a way of remaining on his good graces to promote. The ambitions of the opportunists class on team AV are vividly apparent.

  • You guys crack me up. On one hand you beat up AV for promoting inexperienced people, then you castigate him for promoting self serving Tanaka worshippers.

    When you geniuses stop whining about what you didn’t get you’ll realize there are no perfect choices but the best that is available.

  • The Baca I knew, was a well intentioned, emphatic, individual. He was an intelligent person, who let the aphrodisiac of power, coupled with the misguided trust of conniving individuals, get the better of him. Which unfortunately, caused his demise.

    Aside from the fact that he will have to go to prison to serve time, his actions, along with the actions of others from his “team”, have left an indelible stain on this department. Which has cast a shadow on many loyal and dedicated department personnel.

    I wish him luck and may he have found God and asked for forgiveness of his sins.

  • Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was ordered Thursday to report to prison by Feb. 5 to begin serving a three-year prison sentence for a corruption conviction. Baca, 77, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, has been free on bail while appealing his obstruction of justice conviction three years ago.

    PT scheduled for release on 04/19/2021

    I never really thought I would see the leaders of the largest sheriff’s department go to jail. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Lets hope todays leaders learn from the past.

    @ Pat Rolman – agree completely. Time will mop up the stain only if the current resign can stay out of the negative light.

  • The Lee Baca that I knew had a bad hair piece and liked the idea of being Sheriff more than actually being Sheriff. That stench you speak of is still there, they try to clean it but it lingers, and at some point it will rise up again and stink up the place. The department may have a new devil, but its the same hell and the stench shall rise again.

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