LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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 erred in concluding 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. "Moreover, the district court failed to recognize that Baca had raised a substantial question, which is evidence that the appeal is not for purpose of delay."
Baca has long held he was not guilty of the crimes and will eventually prevail on appeal.
He was convicted in March — nearly six years after he and other brass were alerted 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.
Defense lawyer Nathan 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 that 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.