Ex-LA sheriff cites Alzheimer's in decision to go to trial

Lee Baca withdrew his guilty plea to lying about efforts to thwart an FBI investigation into abuses at the jails he ran and vowed to "set the record straight" at trial

By Brian Melley and Delara Shakib
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Faced with spending the best of his remaining years in prison as he declines from Alzheimer's, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca withdrew his guilty plea to lying about efforts to thwart an FBI investigation into abuses at the jails he ran and vowed to "set the record straight" at trial.

The decision followed a collapse in negotiations to reach a new sentencing deal Monday after a judge rejected a previous agreement as too lenient because it called for no more than six months behind bars in the corruption case.

Defense lawyers said they offered to have Baca serve no more than a year, but they believed the judge wanted a sentence of several years and they needed certainty given the 74-year-old's prognosis and his desire to emerge from incarceration without having lost too much mental capacity.

"We have a very, very small window of time that we believe Mr. Baca's life will be normal," attorney Michael Zweiback told reporters. "There's a good likelihood that he'll be suffering very dramatically from the disease at issue. So if there was a possibility that he was going to go beyond his good years in prison, then he should go out and fight."

Judge Percy Anderson set a trial date for Sept. 20 in U.S. District Court, although that's likely to be postponed after prosecutors seek an indictment that could allege more serious offenses.

Zweiback said prosecutors told him they would seek obstruction of justice charges if Baca decided to withdraw the plea and go to trial, though he said their evidence is weak.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney declined to comment on future charges or the plea deal because the case is pending.

Jurors in the case will not be able to hear about the guilty plea, but widespread publicity about it could make it harder to seat a panel.

The prospect that Baca will face a public trial as he declines from Alzheimer's is another dramatic twist in a corruption scandal that blossomed after deputies discovered an inmate was an FBI informant gathering evidence about civil rights abuses by jailers.

Even as his underlings were being charged with crimes ranging from assault to conspiracy to obstruct justice, Baca remained steadfast that he played no role in the corruption.

Baca, who resigned abruptly in 2014 after a wave of indictments were announced, said his faults were limited to being out of touch with the day-to-day operations of the nation's largest jail system that he ran for 16 years.

But earlier this year, as prosecutors prepared for trial against his top lieutenant, Baca pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and acknowledged he had played a role in trying to derail the probe.

Two weeks ago, a remorse-filled Baca said in court that he had failed to lead and had let down the department and the public.

That wasn't enough for Anderson, who said Baca had not just lied, but been "involved in a wide-ranging conspiracy to cover up abuse and corruption."

That left Baca three options: cut a new deal with prosecutors and hope Anderson would accept it; allow Anderson to sentence him up to five years in prison; or withdraw the plea and go to trial.

Baca, who wore a gray pinstriped suit, white shirt, pink necktie and matching handkerchief in his breast pocket on Monday, took exception with the judge's remarks as he addressed reporters outside court and explained his reasoning for withdrawing his guilty plea.

"I made this decision due to untruthful comments about my actions made by the court and the U.S. attorney's office that are contradicted by evidence in this case," he said. "While my future and my ability to defend myself depends on my Alzheimer's disease, I need to set the record straight about me and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on misleading aspects of the federal investigation while I'm capable of doing this."

Baca's condition will play a role in his defense because the "arc of the disease started well before" he lied to the FBI and federal prosecutors in 2013, Zweiback said. "We will be able to prove that in court," he said.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press

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