In an unusual ruling regarding improper courtroom attire, a federal judge this week banned former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca from wearing a small lapel pin of a sheriff’s star during his forthcoming retrial on corruption charges, but a decision on the ex-lawman’s cufflinks is pending.
During an hour-long motions hearing, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson granted the prosecution’s request that Baca refrain from wearing the tiny six-pointed sheriff’s star on his lapel, as he has done for every court appearance since charges were first filed against him one year ago.
“He uses it to communicate to the jury,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the judge.
In court papers, Fox argued that in sporting the star, Baca is sending a subtle message to jurors that he is an honorable, law-abiding former law enforcement official who has the support of the department.
The defense, however, described such worries as “paranoid.”
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman argued that the lapel pin is similar to a class ring or an insignia and has no power to prejudice the jury.
According to the government, the 74-year-old former lawman “essentially testified” without taking the witness stand or being subjected to cross-examination by wearing the small badge during the two-week trial that ended Dec. 22 in a mistrial.
Using the quarter-sized pin, Baca “attempted to cloak himself with the credibility, authority and support of the Sheriff’s Department,” prosecutors contend in court papers.
Hochman countered in his motion that the government is simply ascribing its failure to convict on “the almost mystical and talismanic power that a one-inch sheriff’s star” seems to have had over the Los Angeles federal jury. He described the prosecution’s fears as “paranoid allegations.”
The pin “was barely visible to the jury, if at all,” Hochman wrote, pointing out that his client sat 20 to 30 feet away from the jury box.
Anderson, however, ordered that Baca not wear the pin in the presence of jurors in any situation where he may come into contact with the panelists, including the courthouse cafeteria.
A short time later, Fox noticed that Baca was wearing cufflinks adorned with the sheriff’s star. The prosecutors is expected to prepare a motion to have that jewelry also banned.
Another motion involving defense allegations that, in retrying Baca for obstruction of justice, the government is illegally exposing him to double jeopardy was apparently rejected by the judge at sidebar.
Anderson indicated that jury selection would begin on either Feb. 21 or 22, with about 245 potential panelists summoned to the new downtown federal courthouse.
The judge said jurors would remain anonymous due to the media attention the trial is expected to draw and to lessen the chance that they are contacted during the proceedings.
Baca was tried in December on the two obstruction charges, culminating with jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquiting the former sheriff. Anderso then declared a mistrial.
At his retrial—expected to take about two weeks—the former sheriff will also face a third felony count of lying to federal officials.
Baca is accused of conspiring to comm, and committing, obstruction of justice from August to September 2011, partly stemming from an incident in which two sheriff’s investigators confronted an FBI agent involved in the jail probe in the driveway leading into her apartment, and falsely told her they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest.