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U.S. prosecutors plan corruption retrial for ex-Los Angeles county sheriff

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors have decided to retry former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges that left a jury deadlocked last month, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney said on Tuesday.

Baca, 74, is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and stands accused of trying to thwart a federal corruption probe that overshadowed the final years of his tenure as chief custodian of the country's largest county jail system.

The initial prosecution of Baca ended in a mistrial on Dec. 22 when jurors informed U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson they were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on two charges - obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Jurors said afterward that the 12-member panel had split 11-1 in favor of acquittal.

After prosecutors announced their retrial intentions at a hearing on Tuesday, the judge scheduled opening statements to begin anew on Feb. 21, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The judge also granted a prosecution request to fold in a separate, additional charge of lying to federal investigators, for which a separate trial was had been planned because Baca's lawyers wanted to raise his dementia as a defense. Prosecutors previously had insisted that mental health experts called by the defense could prejudice the jury in Baca's favor.

The retrial proceedings will now encompass all three charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Defense attorney Nathan Hochman accused the government of backtracking on its earlier decision to split the case in two.

"Sheriff Baca was prepared to have these three counts tried together in the first trial and looks forward to having them tried together in the second trial," Hochman told Reuters by phone.

Baca pleaded guilty last February to the false statement charge, but withdrew his plea in August after Anderson ruled that the six-month prison term prosecutors recommended as part of that plea deal was too lenient.

The case stems from a wide-ranging federal investigation of inmate abuse by sheriff's deputies and other wrongdoing, including coverup attempts, at two downtown Los Angeles jails. Baca retired in 2014 in the midst of the corruption probe, which has led to 17 convictions.

His defense has contended that Baca was unaware of efforts inside his department to impede the investigation, and that his former second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, was to blame. Tanaka is currently serving a five-year sentence for his role in the case.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Steve Gorman, G Crosse)

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