Judge denies ex-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca’s request for change of venue, prosecutor
By: Joel Rubin, Los AngelesTimes
With his criminal trial approaching, former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca on Monday lost bids to have the case moved out of Los Angeles and the lead prosecutor disqualified. At a hearing Monday afternoon, Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, failed to persuade U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson to grant the requests. Anderson showed little patience for Hochman’s arguments, interrupting him frequently with sarcastic quips and incredulous questions.
During the hearing and in court filings, Hochman tried to make the case that media coverage of Baca’s legal troubles will make it impossible to select an impartial jury in Los Angeles. And he said that Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox should not be allowed to prosecute the former sheriff because, should the case go to trial, Hochman plans to call Fox as a witness.
Baca faces charges of obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators that stem from the role he allegedly played in a 2011 plan to interfere with an FBI probe into widespread abuses by sheriff’s deputies working in county jails.
Several subordinates, including former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, already have been convicted or pleaded guilty to taking part in the scheme to thwart the FBI — which included hiding an inmate who was working as an agency informant and threatening to arrest the lead agent in the case.
Hochman asked Anderson to move the trial to a different federal court district in California. Barring that, he asked for it to take place in one of the satellite courthouses in Santa Ana or Riverside that are part of the Central District of California.
Hochman gave an account of the extensive media coverage of Baca’s case, arguing that the amount of attention that the former sheriff has received — and what he claimed was bias against Baca in the reporting — had tainted any potential jury pool.
“The pervasiveness of the coverage and its prejudicial effect to Mr. Baca receiving a fair trial by an impartial jury free from outside influence cannot be overstated,” Hochman wrote.
Anderson disagreed, ruling Hochman had fallen far short of the high legal bar a defendant must clear to win a change of venue.
The coverage of the case, the judge found, had not been so inflammatory and pervasive as to taint the entire pool of potential jurors — who will be selected from the millions of people living in Los Angeles County and surrounding counties.
In the fight over Fox, Hochman said that the head of the U.S. attorney’s public corruption and civil rights division must be benched because he had participated in an interview of Baca. The former sheriff is accused of lying about his role in the obstruction plan during that interview, and Hochman said he plans to put Fox on the witness stand.
As they did with the change of venue request, prosecutors resisted the bid to remove Fox, who has handled nearly all of the earlier cases arising from the jail investigations. One of Fox’s colleagues wrote in a filing that Hochman could question any of the several other people who were present for the interview.
“It is obvious that he does not intend to call … Fox as a witness,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Eddie Jauregui wrote. “Instead, defendant’s filing is a thinly veiled attempt to remove from his case an experienced trial attorney who has led the successful prosecutions of defendant’s co-conspirators.”
Anderson again sided with the government, finding that Hochman had not shown any “compelling need” to call Fox to the stand. He added that the motion to recuse Fox “appears to be aimed at eliminating a member of the prosecution team.”
Earlier this month, Baca lost a bid to have Anderson removed from the case.
The legal maneuverings are the latest twists in what has been an unusual case.
As prosecutors pursued their cases against lower-level sheriff’s officials, Baca last year entered into a plea agreement.
Under the terms of the deal, Baca was to admit that he lied at the interview about his involvement in the obstruction plan. In exchange for his guilty plea, Baca, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, was to spend no more than six months in prison.
But Anderson derailed the deal, concluding the six-month sentence was too lenient for the 74-year-old, who led the Sheriff’s Department during a period when violent attacks by deputies on inmates were commonplace and covered up.
With Anderson signaling that he intended to hand down a stiff punishment, Baca opted to back out of the deal and take his chances at a high-stakes trial scheduled to begin in December.
Baca’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which was made public after he agreed to the plea deal, has factored heavily in the case. His attorneys have said they plan to use Baca’s declining mental health as part of their defense.
Seeking to head off a possible attempt by Baca’s lawyers to have him deemed unfit to stand trial, Fox successfully sought from Anderson an order to have the former sheriff undergo extensive tests to establish his competency. Those tests have been completed, but Anderson on Monday ordered that the results be kept under seal.