LOS ANGELES — Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca should remain free while challenging his conviction for trying to derail an FBI investigation into abuses at the jail system he ran, a federal appeals court said Wednesday.
Baca, 75, raised a substantial legal question when he claimed he was wrongly prevented from presenting evidence of his Alzheimer's diagnosis at trial, three judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
"Baca's claim that the district court erred by excluding expert evidence of his Alzheimer's disease is at least 'fairly debatable,'" the court said in an unsigned order.
Federal Judge Percy Anderson was wrong to conclude Baca was only appealing to delay reporting to prison to serve a three-year term for obstructing justice, conspiracy and lying to investigators, the court said.
"The record does not support the district court's conclusion that 'the nature of (Baca's) illness' suggests that Baca is pursuing the appeal for the purpose of delay," the order said.
Anderson had said in denying bail that, given the progressive declines brought on by Alzheimer's, further delays would continue to allow Baca "to spend his best remaining days on bail rather than incarcerated."
Baca welcomed the 9th Circuit order and plans to "reverse the flawed and constitutionally deficient trial" on appeal, attorney Nathan Hochman said.
He was convicted in March — nearly six years after he learned that a jail inmate caught with a contraband cellphone was working to provide the FBI with evidence of brutal beatings by guards.
Once the FBI investigation was exposed, Baca met with other brass in the department to stall that probe and mislead their federal counterparts. But the plan backfired. Federal investigators turned their attention to taking down higher-ups who conspired with the longtime sheriff to kill the civil rights investigation.
Baca was sentenced in May to three years in prison for obstruction of justice, conspiracy and lying.
Hochman asked Anderson to spare Baca a prison sentence, saying Alzheimer's was a sentence of its own.
Anderson said the suggestion was an insult to millions suffering from the condition who weren't criminals. "Alzheimer's disease is not a get-out-of-jail card," the judge said.
The defense challenged a series of rulings Anderson made that Hochman said were improper and showed bias toward Baca.
Baca, who served 15 years as sheriff, initially pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to federal investigators. He withdrew the plea after Anderson rejected a sentence of no more than six month as too lenient.
Anderson considered allowing jurors to hear evidence of Alzheimer's. But he said it would only be relevant to the lying charge and could hinder prosecutors by creating sympathy for Baca.
A psychiatrist was prepared to testify that Baca's memory could have been impaired when he allegedly told prosecutors in 2013 that he was unaware of actions taken by deputies to thwart the investigation.
At Anderson's suggestion, prosecutors elected to first go forward with a trial on the charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
When that ended in mistrial in December with jurors leaning 11-1 for acquittal, prosecutors opted to retry Baca on all three counts and take their chances with jurors hearing Baca was now suffering from the early stages of the disease.
However, Anderson later barred the Alzheimer's testimony, ruling it would be speculative and a waste of time.