Character Witnesses Testify for Ex-L.A. Sheriff

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LOS ANGELES (CN) — Former L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca put on several character witnesses Friday in an effort to persuade jurors he did not obstruct an FBI investigation of jailer-on-inmate brutality in two jails.

The 74-year-old retired sheriff, who appeared in court wearing a gold tie and pinstriped suit, is accused of conspiring to hide inmate-informant Anthony Brown from FBI investigators after jailers discovered an FBI phone was smuggled into Men’s Central Jail by sheriff’s Deputy Gilbert Michel.

Prosecutors have called Baca the “heartbeat” of the conspiracy to interfere with a federal investigation of Men’s Central and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman denies it. He says the sheriff did not keep the FBI at bay and was only concerned about jail security.

Hochman told the jury that Baca was furious that FBI agents had introduced a phone into the jails because cellphones can be used to arrange hits on witnesses or smuggle drugs.

Hochman also maintains that it was Baca’s second-in-command, convicted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who called the shots.

Several law enforcement officials took the stand as character witnesses Friday morning. They included Ira Reiner, who was Los Angeles district attorney from 1984 to 1992, and Steve Cooley, who was DA during the period when Baca is accused of obstructing the FBI investigation.

“What was Sheriff Baca’s reputation in the community for obeying the law?” Hochman asked Reiner.

“Excellent,” Reiner replied.

Cooley said Baca’s reputation in the community was “law-abiding.”

Baca also called Paul Pietrantoni, a Lockheed Martin employee who formerly worked on the sheriff’s SWAT team, and was captain of a gang unit. Baca promoted him to commander of Men’s Central Jail in 2012.

Before he became commander, Pietrantoni had trained deputies on wrestling techniques to use to avoid striking or hitting inmates with batons or flashlights. Hochman presented him to show that Baca had taken steps to address the issue of jailer-on-inmate violence.

Federal prosecutor Brando Fox asked Pietrantoni if he had any way of knowing whether the techniques he had taught were adopted by the deputies who learned them. Pietrantoni said he did not.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson excused the jury a little before 1 p.m.

Closing arguments Monday are expected to last about 4½ hours. Anderson will then instruct the jury and they will begin deliberations.

Baca told reporters as he left the courtroom with his wife, Carol Chiang: “It’s coming to a close.”

If convicted, Baca faces a maximum of five years in prison on the conspiracy charge and 10 years for obstruction. He faces a second trial on a charge of making a false statement to prosecutors in 2013.