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Mistrial Declared After Jury Deadlocks in Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca’s Federal Obstruction of Justice Trial

A mistrial has been declared in the federal obstruction of justice case against former Sheriff Lee Baca, who led the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for more than 15 years, after the jury deadlocked Thursday.

Lee Baca appears with his attorneys outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles after a mistrial was declared in his obstruction of justice trial on Dec. 22, 2016. (Credit: KTLA)

Lee Baca appears with his attorneys outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles after a mistrial was declared in his obstruction of justice trial on Dec. 22, 2016. (Credit: KTLA)

The jury of six men and six women, meeting in the federal courthouse in downtown L.A., began deliberations Monday. The trial began Dec. 7.

They were weighing whether Baca, 74, was involved in a scheme to block the FBI from investigating abuse of inmates at county jails. Baca was charged with two felony counts: conspiracy to obstruct a federal grand jury investigation and obstruction of justice.

Jurors were split 11-1 in favor of acquittal, the Los Angeles Times reported.They deliberated for two full days and part of two other days.

"I feel great," Baca said outside the courthouse. "I want to thank the jury. ... The jury took this very seriously. Eleven jurors stood up and said, 'We'll hear it all.'"

U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson declared a mistrial in the courtroom Thursday afternoon. About an hour before that, jurors had sent out a note to the judge, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in L.A.

A single juror met privately with the judge and attorneys before the mistrial was announced, the Times reported.

If convicted, the former leader of one of the nation's largest local law enforcement agencies would have faced up to five years in federal prison on the conspiracy charge, and up to 10 years on the obstruction charge.

It's not clear if prosecutors will seek a retrial. Baca still faces a separate trial on a charge of making false statements to federal officials.

Baca's attorney told reporters he looked forward to "vigorously contesting" any future charges against the ex-lawman.

The case began when jail deputies in 2011 found a cellphone on an inmate who was acting as an informant for federal investigators looking into allegations of abuse at county jails. That discovery led to a plan to hide the informant within the jail system, preventing federal agents from accessing him. At one point, sheriff’s officials threatened to arrest an FBI investigator working the jail probe, going to the agent's house and confronting her.

Lee Baca, with his attorneys, walks out of the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles after a mistrial was declared in his obstruction of justice trial on Dec. 22, 2016. (Credit: KTLA)

Lee Baca, with his attorneys, walks out of the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles after a mistrial was declared in his obstruction of justice trial on Dec. 22, 2016. (Credit: KTLA)

Attorneys for Baca, who stepped down amid the ensuing scandal in 2014, have said their client didn’t know about the conspiracy, and they pointed the finger instead at former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

"The mere fact that Sheriff Baca was sheriff … does not make him criminally responsible for what went on down below,” Nathan Hochman, Baca’s lead attorney, said in closing statements Monday, the Times reported.

The prosecutor, meanwhile, has said Baca was the heart of the resistance to the FBI’s jail investigation.

"No man is above the law,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told jurors in his closing argument.

Nine other sheriff’s officials have been convicted in connection with the plot, including Tanaka, who was in April found guilty of conspiring to obstruct justice and a substantive count of obstructing justice.

A jury found Tanaka guilty in less than two hours. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison in June.

Multiple other current and former members of the 18,000-employee Sheriff's Department have been convicted in inmate abuse cases prompted by the FBI's investigation.

Several former deputies testified against Baca, the Times reported.

The former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, Andre Birotte Jr., now a U.S. District Court judge, also testified, saying Baca was furious after the cellphone was discovered.

"'I’m the GD sheriff, these are my GD jails,'" Birotte quoted Baca as saying during a 2011 meeting.

Other retired sheriff’s officials and prosecutors, including former county district attorneys Steve Cooley and Ira Reiner, told jurors that Baca was not the type of man to break the law, the Times reported.

Baca did not take the stand in his own defense.

In February, Baca agreed to a plea deal that would have left him with a sentence of six months or less in prison. Anderson rejected that as too lenient.

Baca was then indicted in August on three felony counts: conspiracy to obstruct a federal grand jury investigation; obstruction of justice; and making false statements.

The former sheriff, a San Marino resident, was diagnosed earlier this year with Alzheimer’s disease, Fox revealed in a court filing in June.

That diagnosis was linked to Judge Anderson's decision to have the false statements charge against Baca weighed in a separate trial. Anderson made the choice in part because a psychiatrist is expected to testify that the sheriff’s memory had begun to erode due to Alzheimer’s in 2013, when the alleged false statements occurred. Fox said that testimony could unfairly give jurors sympathy for Baca, and the judge chose early this month to bifurcate the case.

A date has not been set for the separate trial.

Baca faces up to five years in federal prison if convicted on the false statements charge.