LOS ANGELES (KABC) --The federal probe into Men's Central Jail that scandalized the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is under a legal microscope.
On Tuesday, a panel of three 9th Circuit Court judges heard the appeals of seven deputies who were convicted for conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
"We have one case on the calendar ... but it's not the ordinary case," said Judge Richard Clifton who convened the hearing at the Pasadena federal courthouse.
The former deputies argue that their convictions should be overturned. A key issue that engaged the panel was how the deputies became entangled in the first place. Most were tasked to investigate crimes by jail deputies or inmates.
The department's top brass, then-Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, had told the deputies to investigate an illegal cellphone smuggled in by the FBI.
Prosecutors say that in the process, the deputies violated a statute.
"It just requires that the defendants intended to obstruct justice, and they did," said the U.S. Attorney Appeals lawyer Ashley Aull.
"Is that the case if they also think they are pursuing lawful orders given by their superiors?" Clifton asked.
"Yes, Your Honor," stated Aull.
The defense argues, however, the jury may have been confused. The prosecutors were able to include a jury instruction that there could be two motives at the same time.
"I think what the appellate court was struggling with was whether this notion of those dual objectives made sense. Whether the jury was stripped of the instructions they needed, the direction they needed," said former federal prosecutor Miriam Aroni Krinsky, who served on the Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence.
Krinsky also notes the panel seemed concerned about the dismissal of a juror who had been deliberating for five days and then described stress.
"You simply can't let a juror go if this juror is disagreeing with other jurors in heated discussion with other jurors and might have been a hold out juror," says Krinsky.
Another defendant, former Lt. Steve Leavins, argued that the jury was not allowed to hear potentially exculpatory evidence. Leavins says that his witness was L.A. County Counsel Paul Yoshinaga, who he consulted to determine whether the sheriff's investigation into the FBI was legal.
Another of the seven defendants, James Sexton, had cooperated with federal investigators and testified before the grand jury over 30 times. Sexton, whose case was tried separately, was tried twice. The jury deadlocked the first time. His lawyer says in the second round, prosecutors took out key parts of what Sexton told a grand jury about breaking the law. One judge asked for further clarification but did not seem persuaded by the defense response.
"I just don't understand why it matters," said Judge Michelle Friedland.
Krinsky cautions that the panel's comments do not send clear signals about what they ultimately will decide. Krinsky says it is notable though that the panel had no questions for the lawyer presenting the U.S. attorney's side, an indicator that the panel agreed with the prosecutor's position.
A decision may take nine months to a year.