MARTINEZ, Calif. — (TodayNews) — A court hearing to determine whether Northern California police officers who exchanged racist text messages violated a state law aimed at rooting out racism in the criminal justice system was adjourned Friday, and no officers spoke to answer questions about the scandal that has rocked the San Francisco Bay Area city.
Defense attorneys for four people charged with murder and attempted murder in a 2021 shooting have subpoenaed Antioch police officers to testify about heavily redacted text messages released in April by the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office.
The lawyers were expected to testify before Judge David Goldstein that their clients, two of whom are mentioned in text messages, had been unfairly targeted because of their race. The state racial justice law prohibits the state from prosecuting or enforcing criminal charges or sentences based on race, ethnicity, or national origin.
But the judge spent most of Friday’s hearing ruling on motions, not evidence, and none of the officers testified. Hearings will continue at the end of August, and the criminal case has been suspended.
In addition to the nine police officers who were subpoenaed and ready to testify on Friday, there are five others who were subpoenaed but said they were injured at work and were not allowed to testify for medical reasons.
A total of 17 Antioch police officers were named for sending texts discussing evidence tampering and beating suspects that contain racist and homophobic language or contain sexually explicit language. Most of the messages were sent in 2020 and 2021 and go far beyond the scope of the case before the court.
Antioch Police Chief Stephen Ford was also subpoenaed to testify, but on Friday Goldstein ruled that he did not need to appear because his testimony had nothing to do with whether the officers were racially biased or hostile. Ford was not the chief of police at the time the text messages were sent.
Carmela Caramagno, an attorney for one of the four suspects, argued that Ford’s testimony was critical for the court to gain an overview of the department’s inner workings and develop an appropriate remedy.
Caramagno said she also wanted to ask Ford why he signed statements saying five officers had “injuries at work” and could not turn up when the defense investigator saw some of them looking “quite healthy”, “having pool parties” and “walking fast.”
Matthew Martinez, a lawyer for one of the defendants, said the officers were called to court so they could explain in court why they sent the texts. But “all of them are unavailable indefinitely,” he said.
The hearing came two days after Ford, who is black, made the surprise announcement that he would retire next month. He retires after only a year, having served as interim and permanent chief of police. He did not respond to emails asking for interviews.
Lawyers representing eight of the nine other officers subpoenaed were also in court on Friday.
Four men, represented by defense lawyers, were charged with murder and attempted murder in a drive-by shooting in March 2021 that prosecutors said was linked to a gang.
The Racial Justice Act allows defendants to go to court for protection. If a violation is found, the judge may dismiss the charges or reduce the charges. In May, Goldstein dropped gang charges against the defendants after historical data showed that district attorneys disproportionately targeted blacks with improvements leading to longer prison terms.
The two defendants, Trent Allen and Terrion Pugh, were the targets of some of the text messages released. The officers joked about hitting them on the head and shooting them in the neck and buttocks. They also shared photos of injured Allen and Pugh in hospital beds.
Shirel Cobbs, Allen’s mother, said she needed an officer who bragged about beating her son in jail.
“He kicked him in the head. He talked about it. It is a crime. He texted about it,” she said outside the courthouse. And they talked about it. He should be in jail right now.”
A police department in combat position serves a racially diverse city of 115,000 about 45 miles (72 km) east of San Francisco.
The text messages were released as part of an ongoing joint investigation launched in March 2022 by the FBI and the Contra Costa District Attorney into a wide range of potential offenses committed by police officers in Antioch and neighboring Pittsburgh.
The city of Antioch is facing a federal civil rights lawsuit over text messages, and in May the state attorney general launched a civil rights investigation into the police department.
This version corrected the number of police officers called as witnesses and present at the hearing on Friday. The number is nine, not eight.
AP contributor Terry Chea contributed to this report.
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