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.