As Lee Baca’s Trial Approaches, the Fight Heats Up About the Former LA Sheriff’s “Cognitive Impairment”November 21st, 2016 by Celeste Fremon
Earlier this month, both the defense and the prosecution agreed with the assessment of a court-appointed examiner
that former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was competent to stand trial on charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and lying in four different instances to federal officials.
The trial is scheduled to begin on December 6.
Now the fight is over whether or not the former sheriff was cognitively able in 2011, and again in 2013, to be legally responsible for his alleged crimes.
Baca was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease in early 2016, news that became public in June of this year. Since that time, the issue of the former sheriff’s cognitive impairment has been a legal matter as well as a medical one. (WitnessLA first broke the story of Baca’s illness in late May.)
Yet, although both parties have agreed that Mr. Baca’s is fit to go to trial next month, the former sheriff’s mental state will clearly be a major feature of the defense’s argument that Baca should be acquitted of all charges. The defense team contends that in the late summer and early fall of 2011, when the events underlying the obstruction of justice charges occurred, Baca was already failing cognitively.
They further contend that the former sheriff was suffering from memory impairment during his April 12, 2013 government interview, where he was asked about “events and conversations” that occurred in August-September 2011. It was his answers to questions in this interview that resulted in the charge of lying to federal officials.
The defense has a medical expert, Dr. James Spar, a professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA’s med school, who will testify that Baca was already suffering from memory loss and confusion in 2013, and very likely was comprimised for up to ten years prior to his diagnosis this year.
In Baca’s filing, defense attorney Nathan Hochman also names two former department members—former LASD deputy Micky Manzo, and former LASD captain Tom Carey—who reported observing Baca seeming “confused.”
Not surprisingly, the prosecution team of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brandon Fox, Lizabeth Rhodes, and Eddie Jauregui presents a very different view.
“NO MEDICAL EVIDENCE”
In a motion filed earlier this month, government prosecutors write that, during Baca’s 16-year tenure as LA County sheriff, he “never reported any concerns about memory loss or cognitive impairment to any doctor.”
The opposite is true, they write. “There is no medical evidence of cognitive deficiencies in
defendant’s medical records during, or before, his alleged crimes.”
According to the prosecution, Baca “repeatedly went to the doctor and reported no issues related to cognitive functioning.’ Doctors who saw him from 2010 to 2013 “observed and reported that he was alert and oriented to person, place, and time, that there were no significant neurological findings, and that psychiatric affect was always normal.”
In addition, Baca “planned to run for re-election in 2014.”
The prosecution further notes that it was only in March 2014 that Baca sought medical advice based on concerns about his cognitive functioning. “Medical records from that period indicate that defendant’s chief complaint was sleep disturbance,” they write, “although defendant also complained of anxiety, depression and memory difficulties.”
It was not until May 13, 2014, when Baca went to see a neuropsychologist, “that cognitive impairments were first noted by a clinician.”
In a hearing at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson will hear the defense and the prosecution both present arguments about whether or not Baca’s expert, Dr. James Spar, should be permitted to testify at trial–along with some other issues.
Baca, if you’ll remember, originally pleaded guilty in February of this year to one felony count of lying to federal authorities when officials questioned him in the course of a wide-ranging investigation into “corruption and civil rights violations” in the department he’d led for fifteen years, an investigation that, according to the government, Baca, his former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, and others attempted to thwart.
Specifically, Baca admitted that he lied to the FBI and members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office during a round of questioning on April 12, 2013. At that time, among other denials by Baca, the former sheriff falsely claimed ignorance of the fact that, in 2011, two LASD sergeants were going to approach FBI special agent, Leah Marx, and threaten her with arrest, hoping to get information about the feds’ rapidly expanding investigation.
Once Baca pleaded guilty to the single felony count in February, all that remained was for the former sheriff to be sentenced by Judge Anderson at a hearing scheduled for late July.
However, when the hearing arrived, Anderson rejected Baca’s plea deal, telling those in the courtroom that the 0 to 6 month sentencing range that the deal required “would trivialize the seriousness of [Baca's] offenses, his lack of respect for the law and the gross abuse of the public trust…..”
Rather than risk the unspecified longer sentence that Judge Anderson intimated he intended to hand down, Baca opted to go to trial. Thus in early August, the former sheriff was indicted by a federal grand jury for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The two new charges were added to an expanded version of the original charge of lying to federal officials.
We’ll let you know what happens on Tuesday. So stay tuned.
PHOTO OF LEE BACA BY SAXON BRICE