Feds were near defeat in Lee Baca’s corruption case. But a ‘risky move’ in the ex-sheriff’s retrial turned the tide

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Before his retrial even began, Lee Baca was already losing.

In January, shortly after a jury had nearly acquitted the former Los Angeles County sheriff of charges that he helped obstruct an FBI investigation into abuses in his jails, Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox tipped his hand in a court filing. At the upcoming retrial, the prosecutor wrote, the government would not call several witnesses from the first trial who had testified that they tried to warn Baca about the inmate beatings and other corruption inside the county jails.

Fox was making a calculated move. Without the appearance of those witnesses, he told the judge, Baca’s defense attorney should be barred from presenting evidence of any “good acts” Baca did as sheriff to address problems in the jails.

The judge agreed.

That positive testimony during the first trial was essentially replaced, in the retrial, with audio clips of a Baca interview with prosecutors, during which he claimed that he didn’t know that his subordinates were trying to obstruct the FBI.

“The jury heard definitive words from Lee Baca, and it was hard not to conclude that they were the words of someone who was straying from the truth,” Krinsky said. In the jury’s eyes, she added, “he went from someone trying to do the right thing to someone more interested in protecting himself and his department.”

Hochman strenuously opposed Fox’s bid to have the judge toss the testimony favorable to Baca from the second trial. In one filing, he said the government was trying to “distort and mislead the jury into believing that Mr. Baca essentially took no action…to deal with these horrific instances of inmate beatings.” Disallowing the testimony, the attorney argued, would unfairly prevent him from defending Baca against the government’s claims.

With few avenues left, Hochman called a single witness in Baca’s defense.

That witness, Michael Gennaco, had spent more than a decade as the head of the watchdog agency that oversaw the Sheriff’s Department. His testimony, however, was repeatedly cut short by Anderson, who ruled that Gennaco’s observations about his experiences were irrelevant to the case.


For more news on the federal courts in Southern California, follow @joelrubin on Twitter


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