Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he wanted to set the record straight when he withdrew his guilty plea in a federal corruption case earlier this year and chose to go to trial.
Baca wasn’t fully vindicated at trial, but he hailed his mistrial as a victory Thursday after learning that the deadlocked jurors had voted 11-to-1 to acquit him.
“This is an extraordinary decision that I don’t think too many people thought would happen, but I had faith” said Baca, who was accused of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. “This is what America really thrives on is jurors that really care. They’re not caught up in negativity.”
Baca headed the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years before he resigned in 2014 amid allegations that guards at the Men’s Central Jail took bribes, savagely beat inmates and falsified reports to cover up misconduct.
Jurors deliberated about 24 hours over four days before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson declared they were hopelessly deadlocked.
Prosecutors have not yet said whether they would attempt to retry Baca, who is 74 and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
He also faces a charge of lying to investigators, which the judge had broken off into a future separate trial. Anderson scheduled a Jan. 10 hearing to discuss the status of Baca’s case.
Prosecutors said Baca led efforts to thwart a federal civil rights investigation by hiding an inmate informant from his FBI handlers and intimidating the lead agent on the case.
The defense argued that Baca was angry the FBI was operating in his jails behind his back but he wasn’t part of a conspiracy hatched by underlings under the code name “Operation Pandora’s Box.”
The scheme unfolded in August and September 2011 and turned what had been a federal grand jury probe focused on the nation’s largest jail system to a more sweeping corruption investigation that led all the way to the top of the department.
Baca’s long-trusted second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, was one of nine people convicted on obstruction-related charges. Tanaka, who ran unsuccessfully to replace Baca after his abrupt retirement in 2014, 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.
Baca was criticized for losing touch with the daily operations of the Sheriff’s Department and its 18,000 employees by delegating too much responsibility to lieutenants.
He managed to escape charges in the scandal until February when he pleaded guilty to a single count of making false statements to federal authorities.
He backed out of the plea deal after a judge rejected a sentence of no more than six months as too lenient. He was then indicted on the more serious obstruction charges. Jurors were not told about the withdrawn plea.
“For 48 years, Sheriff Lee Baca served the people of the county of Los Angeles honorably, tirelessly and faithfully,” defense lawyer Nathan Hochman said after the mistrial. “The government tried to tarnish that reputation. But, thankfully, 11 out of 12 jurors found that the government’s case came up short.”