LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jurors began deliberating Monday in the federal corruption trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca after prosecutors accused him in closing arguments of trying to stop an FBI investigation into guards who savagely beat inmates in his jails and then lied about trying to obstruct the probe.
A defense lawyer countered that Baca thought it was the FBI that committed a crime when agents had a cellphone smuggled to an inmate informant. Attorney Nathan Hochman told jurors they heard “no evidence Sheriff Baca gave orders to obstruct the FBI.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lizabeth Rhodes said in her closing argument that “when defendant Baca learned the FBI and a federal grand jury was investigating, he obstructed and when he learned the FBI has turned its focus on him, he lied.”
She said Baca’s subordinates hid an FBI informant who was in the county jail from federal agents, moved him to other detention facilities and changed his name in the Sheriff’s Department computer in order to thwart the probe.
“Obstruction started from the top and went all the way down,” Rhodes said.
Jurors deliberated for about an hour Monday before leaving the courthouse. They will resume Tuesday.
As he left court, Baca would only say that he is feeling well and looking forward to the verdict. If convicted, Baca, who has early stage Alzheimer’s disease, could face up to 20 years in prison.
Baca, who headed the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 15 years before he resigned in 2014 is accused of a 2011 conspiracy to derail the FBI probe after jail guards discovered an inmate with a contraband cellphone was acting as an FBI informant.
An undercover FBI agent had bribed a guard to give the phone to the inmate so he could stay in touch with the FBI and shoot photos and video of beatings.
Hochman said Baca thought the FBI committed a crime when agents had the cellphone smuggled to the inmate informant. He said Baca believed the inmate was being moved and having his name changed in the computer for safety reasons.
Hochman also said the former sheriff didn’t willfully lie to federal authorities about the case in 2013, as prosecutors allege.
Several of Baca’s former deputies testified during the trial that they believed Baca knew of their actions to hide the informant.
An FBI agent who was leading the investigation into the abuse at the jail told jurors last week that while she was investigating the case, two sheriff’s sergeants went to her home and threatened to arrest her.
In his opening statements in late February, Hochman told Baca had explained what happened to the “best of his memory.”
A psychiatrist has said Baca’s memory could have been impaired when he told prosecutors in 2013 he was unaware of actions taken by deputies to thwart the FBI investigation, though his defense attorney was unable to present that as a defense.
Baca did not testify in his own his defense.
It’s the second time Baca has faced trial on charges that he conspired with underlings and obstructed justice in the investigation of civil abuses in the nation’s largest jail system.
In December, jurors deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. He was going to face a separate trial on a lying charge, but prosecutors added that count to the other two charges in the retrial.
Follow Michael Balsamo on Twitter @MikeBalsamo1.