LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A prosecutor told a federal jury Tuesday that the conspiracy case against the former second-in-command at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department seemed like a movie script, and “you get to write the end of the story.”
Ex-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s attorney countered that he should be acquitted because he was merely following his then-boss’ orders and did not instigate any illegal activity.
With that exchange fresh in their minds, jurors began deliberations Tuesday afternoon, on the ninth day of trial. Deliberations are expected to resume Wednesday morning.
Tanaka is accused of directing eight alleged co-conspirators in a scheme by jail guards to thwart attempts by federal authorities in 2011 to contact an inmate-turned-informant and bring him before a grand jury looking into allegations of excessive force within the county jail system.
“This was Paul Tanaka’s operation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the Los Angeles federal jury in his closing argument. “He was the director. He was in charge.”
Painting the defendant as a man of “many faces,” Fox said Tanaka worked to “overrule and undermine” the goals of the sheriff’s department, acting as the “authority everyone was operating under to engage in this
Fox said “this sad movie” began five years ago when a cellphone was discovered in the hands of an inmate at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone to the FBI, which was conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.
At that point, sheriff’s officials “closed ranks” — allegedly at the direction of Tanaka — and launched an attempt to halt the formerly covert investigation by concealing the inmate-informant, Anthony Brown, from federal prosecutors, who had issued a writ for his grand jury appearance.
The charges also include a host of “overt acts” — including allegations of witness tampering and attempting to threaten an FBI case agent with arrest.
A defense attorney, however, argued Tuesday that much of the testimony against Tanaka was motivated by jealousy, delivered by retired sheriff’s officials with grudges against him.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is not a crime to be a strong leader,” defense attorney H. Dean Steward said in his summation. “Paul Tanaka was a pro-active, strong leader. He ruffled some feathers. He’s had some people that don’t like his leadership style and don’t like him. But that’s not a crime.”
Steward told the jury that ex-sheriff Lee Baca — Tanaka’s boss at the time — “was in control of this entire situation.”
The attorney said it was Baca who demanded that his underlings “make sure that Anthony Brown stay in the jail system,” rather than transfer to state prison, where he was headed in August 2011.
“Baca was the driving force here, with Paul Tanaka trying to help out with bits and pieces” of information, Steward told the panel.
“Baca is pushing everybody — and I mean everybody,” the attorney said, suggesting that if his client believed that the sheriff’s orders were “reasonable and lawful,” then there was no criminal intent on Tanaka’s part. Without intent, Steward said, “you’re not guilty.”
But in his rebuttal, Fox countered that Baca’s role “has nothing to do with the guilt of Paul Tanaka.”
Baca, the prosecutor continued, “made Paul Tanaka the director of this sad movie.” The defendant chose the players, “wrote the script” and “made sure his presence was felt,” Fox said.
If convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, Tanaka would face up to 15 years in federal prison.
During two days of testimony, Tanaka, 57, denied remembering details of his communications with his alleged co-conspirators — all of whom have been convicted previously in the case.
Phone logs focusing on days in August and September of 2011 that were relevant to the case revealed about 70 calls between Tanaka and the alleged co-conspirators, but only one between Tanaka and his then-boss, Fox said.
Baca pleaded guilty in February to a charge of lying to investigators and is awaiting sentencing in May.
Fox’s questioning of Tanaka on Monday partly dealt with the defendant’s time as a sergeant at the Lynwood sheriff’s station in the 1980s.
The prosecutor zeroed in on Tanaka’s membership in the Vikings, a clique of Lynwood deputies who have been described in court papers as a white supremacist gang, Tanaka — who admitted to having a Vikings tattoo on an ankle — became visibly angry.
His voice rising, Tanaka said he was “not a Viking in the sense you are trying to refer. Because you’re trying to make it evil, doesn’t mean that it is evil.”
In his jury instructions, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said that the panel may consider the Vikings-related evidence only as far as Tanaka’s “intent and credibility.”
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