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Ex-LA County sheriff Baca faces retrial in corruption case

Last Updated Jan 10, 2017 at 9:40 pm EST

Former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca, center, listens as his lawyer, Nathan Hochman, second from right, addresses the media in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. U.S. prosecutors will retry Baca on obstruction-of-justice and other charges stemming from a federal investigation of jail abuses. (AP Photo/Brian Melley)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca will be retried on obstruction of justice and other charges related to an effort by deputies and top department officials to derail an FBI investigation into violence in the nation’s largest jail system, prosecutors announced Tuesday.

A mistrial was declared last month when a federal jury deadlocked 11-1 in favour of acquittal on the obstruction count and a charge of conspiracy.

The trial scheduled for next month will also include a third count of lying to federal authorities.

Judge Percy Anderson had previously ordered a separate trial on that count after prosecutors said evidence of Baca’s early stage Alzheimer’s was only relevant to that charge and could harm their obstruction case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox said the government was prepared to take the risk that evidence of the disease could hurt its efforts to hold Baca accountable for a scheme to mislead federal authorities and intimidate an FBI agent investigating corruption and inmate beatings at the jails Baca oversaw.

“We may suffer the prejudice,” Fox said. “We are prepared to do so.”

Baca, 74, headed the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years before he resigned in 2014 amid allegations that jail guards took bribes, beat inmates and falsified reports to cover up misconduct.

He managed to escape charges in the scandal until February when he abruptly pleaded guilty to a single count of making false statements in a plea deal that called for him to serve no more than six months behind bars.

Anderson rejected the sentence as too light and Baca was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. He was then indicted on the more serious obstruction charges in addition to the lying count.

Defence lawyer Nathan Hochman said prosecutors were acting in bad faith by opting for separate trials and then combining all three charges in one, though he acknowledged he originally argued for a single trial.

“Now the government is backtracking, saying it won’t be prejudiced by the Alzheimer’s defence and wants to try all three counts at the same time,” Hochman said outside court. “We welcome that development.”

Baca’s diagnosis didn’t surface publicly until last year during court proceedings. Doctors found he was in the early stages of the disease and competent to stand trial.

The conspiracy to obstruct justice accusation dates to 2011 when jail guards discovered that an inmate with a contraband cellphone was an FBI informant.

Baca was furious when he learned about it and met with top brass to discuss the situation.

His second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, spearheaded what became known as Operation Pandora’s Box. The inmate was moved to another jail and hidden under a false name, and deputies threatened to arrest his FBI handler, according to testimony at several trials.

Tanaka — one of nine people convicted on obstruction-related charges — was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Another 11 members of the department were convicted of various other charges, including beatings, falsifying reports and taking bribes.

The lying charge Baca faces dates to 2013 when he was questioned by federal authorities about the conspiracy two years earlier and denied knowing about it.

Baca’s lawyer wants to present evidence that his memory was impaired by Alzheimer’s at the time.

Anderson scheduled jury selection for the week of Feb. 13 and said he plans opening statements on Feb. 21.