Once the most powerful sheriff in the United States, Lee Baca is now headed to prison.
A jury convicted the former Los Angeles County sheriff Wednesday on conspiracy charges stemming from his role in a cover-up of extensive civil rights abuses inside the county’s vast jail system.
It was Baca’s second trial over the extensive corruption and abuse he oversaw during his 15 years running the largest sheriff’s department in the country. The first jury Baca faced came back hung in December, forcing federal prosecutors to re-try him.
The scope of Baca’s actual conviction is much narrower than the departmental scandal that eventually chased him out of office in 2014, as dozens of his officers faced criminal charges.
Baca’s own convictions tie back to one specific incident within a much longer saga of abusive and corrupt practices in the county jail system. Human rights lawyers had documented allegations of brutality and corruption inside Baca’s jails for years before federal investigators got involved. When Baca’s team discovered the investigators had an inmate informant, they hid the inmate from the FBI agents who were working with him and sent two people to confront the lead investigator at her home.
Baca’s role in crafting and approving efforts to stymie an investigation put him in a legal box. But that’s akin to catching Al Capone for cheating on his taxes, considering the years of detailed reports on the culture of extreme and routine violence deputies used to maintain their authority within Baca’s jails.
“Many of the beatings that routinely occur in the jails are far more severe than the beating of Rodney King,” former FBI agent Thomas Parker said in 2011 after reviewing reports compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union. The group described Baca’s department as a “savage gang” that treated the jails as a fiefdom rather than a corrections facility. A city panel corroborated that depiction in a 2012 report detailing the violent, abusive culture fostered among deputies assigned to the jails.
Baca, now 74, had initially sought to avoid trial entirely, copping a plea on lesser charges in exchange for a six-month sentence. A judge decided that the sentence was too light and refused to approve the deal.
After losing his plea deal, Baca argued last summer that he was incompetent to stand trial because of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. A judge disagreed and let the case go ahead.
The ex-sheriff now faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, pending appeals.