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Judge limits character witness testimony in upcoming Baca trial

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca (center) and his attorney Nathan Hochman (right) outside federal court in Los Angeles after a judge declared a mistrial in the obstruction of justice case against Baca. He's now being retried.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC
Baca (center) and his attorney Nathan Hochman (right) outside a federal court in Los Angeles after a judge declared a mistrial in the obstruction of justice case against him.

As attorneys prepare to retry former L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca, federal prosecutors have successfully blocked Baca's defense team from calling character witnesses to testify on his prior “good acts.”

Baca is accused of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying in connection with a scheme to thwart an FBI investigation into the inmate abuse in the jails.

A prior trial ended in a hopelessly deadlocked jury, forcing a new trial, which is expected to begin later this month.

During a hearing Monday, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said testimony from character witnesses could confuse the jury and prove to be a "waste of time." 

Baca's defense attorney, Nathan Hochman, argued that testimony of character witnesses was necessary to refute prosecutors' claim that Baca's intent was to corrupt.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Hochman told the judge Monday.

During Baca's previous trial, Hochman argued that Baca cooperated with other federal investigations and sought to improve conditions in the jail. He also called a number of character witnesses to testify on Baca's long record of service in the sheriff's department.

For the new trial, a pool of between 200 and 250 potential jurors have been summoned, and jury selection is expected to begin Feb. 21 or 22.

In preparation for that trial, Anderson also ordered that Baca remove the sheriff’s star pin he’d worn on his lapel each day of the previous trial. Prosecutors had asked for the pin to be taken off, arguing it was "essentially testifying" without taking the stand.

Baca’s is the latest trial in a jail scandal that led to the convictions or guilty pleas of several former department employees. FBI agents began a civil rights investigation into inmate abuse at L.A. County jails, but found their efforts blocked in 2011 when sheriff’s employees hid an inmate informant working with the FBI. Sheriff's deputies later threatened to arrest an FBI agent at her house.

Prosecutors argue Baca was the heartbeat of the scheme and later lied to federal investigators. Baca’s defense attorney says the scheme was orchestrated by Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who kept Baca in the dark.

*This story has been updated. The headline has been clarified to reflect that character witnesses are barred from speaking to Baca's past "good acts".