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Jury out in trial against sheriff's deputy accused of obstructing federal investigation

 Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announces his unexpected retirement on January 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images
Trial wrapping up in the case of a sheriff's deputy accused of helping thwart an FBI investigation into L.A.'s county jails. The defendant, James Sexton, argues he was following orders from Sheriff Lee Baca (pictured) and other higher ups.

The trial of a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy accused of trying to thwart a federal investigation into jail violence concluded Tuesday. A jury will now decide whether Deputy James Sexton is guilty of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Federal prosecutors argue that in 2011, Sexton, along with other deputies, hid a jail inmate working as an FBI informant from federal agents who were looking for him, changing the inmate's name and moving him between jails to skirt federal detection. They also allege participants in the conspiracy later showed up at the home of an FBI agent and tried to intimidate her by threatening arrest.

Sexton's defense team says the deputy, three years out of the academy at the time, was following orders from higher-ups such as then-Sheriff Lee Baca and then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Those orders, they say, were maybe not the smartest, but weren't illegal.

"How crazy is this? Conduct surveillance on federal agents? That's nuts," Sexton's attorney, Tom O'Brien, said in his closing arguments Tuesday. "But those were the orders. Who gave them? Leroy Baca."

Baca, O'Brien said, was reacting to the incursion by another law enforcement agency into the sheriff's jails. Deputies had discovered that the FBI, utilizing a corrupt deputy willing to take a bribe to smuggle contraband, had given a cell phone to a jail inmate, Anthony Brown, who was also working as a federal informant.

Baca, O'Brien said, was "furious" and struck back at what would become a "jurisdictional turf war" between federal and local law enforcement. The sheriff's department launched an investigation into the FBI and their informant, and then the U.S. Attorney's Office charged seven current and former sheriff's department employees, including Sexton, with conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Meanwhile, O'Brien said, federal and local authorities could have talked to each other and worked out the confusion, but didn't. 

"Why are you here?" O'Brien said to the jury. "Mr. Sexton is nothing more than collateral damage between two massive law enforcement agencies that are fighting like kids."

Prosecutors, however, argued that Sexton and his alleged co-conspirators' actions had the potential to cause real harm to an important federal investigation into violence against inmates and corrupt deputies in L.A. county jails. That's why the group hid Brown from federal agents, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Carter.

"They knew the FBI was connected, knew it was the civil rights squad, and they knew it was an investigation into the sheriff's department's aggressive behavior," Carter said in her closing statement Tuesday.

Carter said a defense argument that deputies believed they were protecting Brown from other deputies and inmates who might want to cause him harm fell flat, as he wasn't moved for days after deputies discovered he was informing on their department.

"He wasn't moved until FBI agents came to the jail to interview him," Carter said. Their intent was "to protect the jail from Anthony Brown, protect deputies the federal government was investigating."

While Sexton's part in the alleged conspiracy may have been slight compared to others, Carter said, Sexton "went in with his eyes wide open. He had a choice and the choice he made was to join the conspiracy."

The case could have political ramifications for Tanaka, the former undersheriff who is one of seven candidates currently running for sheriff in the June 3rd primary.

Tanaka acknowledged in his testimony Monday that he is also being investigated as part of the ongoing criminal inquiry into inmate abuse inside the jails and the alleged conspiracy to block the federal investigation.

Tanaka has maintained he was following Baca's orders when he helped prevent FBI agents from interviewing the jail informant. Tanaka's campaign spokesman Reed Galen says he believes Tanaka's testimony will have no effect on his campaign for sheriff. 

But one of Tanaka's rivals, former sheriff's department commander Bob Olmsted, says Tanaka should withdraw from the race.

Sexton's case is now in the hands of jurors, who will decide on whether his actions were illegal — and whether he intended to commit obstruction of justice when he helped fellow deputies hide Brown and stood guard outside his jail cell. Jurors will also need to decide whether the group as a whole had a legitimate reason to investigate the federal government for bringing a cell phone into the jail, or if their actions were to thwart a grand jury looking into jail violence.