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Last-minute legal maneuver keeps Antioch cops from testifying about racism within their department — for now

Last-minute legal maneuver keeps Antioch cops from testifying about racism within their department — for now

MARTINEZ — On Friday morning, Antioch police officers were expected to answer questions under oath about racism within their own department for the first time since a cascade of scandals revealed prejudice and alleged criminality among their ranks, but a last minute legal maneuver prevented it.

At a Friday court hearing, Superior Court Judge David Goldstein accepted a concession by the Contra Costa District Attorney admitting that Antioch officers who investigated a series of 2021 gang-related shootings had violated the California Racial Justice Act when they sent racist texts and memes to each other while discussing the case. The District Attorney’s concession eliminated the need for defense attorneys to call subpoenaed Antioch officers as witnesses, staving off potentially embarrassing testimony that could have revealed how prevalent racism is within the police department.

But the door isn’t fully closed. Defense attorneys for the four accused men — 22-year-old Terryonn Pugh, 23-year-old Eric Windom, 24-year-old Keyshawn McGee and 22-year-old Trent Allen — will soon argue that murder charges against them should be reduced, and Goldstein is giving lawyers an opportunity to make their case for why Antioch officers should be subpoenaed again. The next court date has been set for Sept. 8.

“We believe that the defense must be permitted to present expert witnesses and other evidence to explain the vast scope of the racial bias in this case and the impact of such racial bias on the integrity of the investigation and the charges,” defense attorney Evan Kuluk, who represents Windom.

The development comes barely a week after 13 current and former Antioch and Pittsburg police officers were charged in a set of sweeping federal indictments alleging savage violations of civil rights, cheating on training classes, distributing steroids, interfering with a related murder investigation and accepting bribes to make traffic tickets go away, in what is one of California’s biggest criminal cases of police corruption.

The four defendants, who are Black, have been in jail for years, and are set to go to trial soon. All four appeared in court Friday.

Defense attorneys for the four men subpoenaed a dozen officers, who promptly lawyered up and filed motions to quash the subpoenas. Some of the officers have claimed that they can’t testify due to “industrial injuries” they suffered, though a defense investigator said some of these very same officers were throwing pool parties, exercising or operating heavy machinery at the very moment he arrived to serve them.

Outside the AF Bray Courthouse, about a dozen Sheriff’s Office deputies stood outside as dozens of protesters held signs and demanded that Antioch officers go to jail after Friday’s hearing.

Judge Goldstein’s ruling means defense attorneys will have to subpoena the officers again to get them on the stand.

Defense attorney Carmela Caramagno, who represents Pugh, said she was “hopeful” that her side would be able to present more evidence, “particularly as it relates to the fact that we had supervisory officers within the department, and we don’t have any information that anybody involved in that text-messaging stream abided by the polices and procedures of the Antioch Police Department.

So I think the remedy stage is gonna be important for us to be able to show just how deep and wide the violations were, and the violations include providing an audience for that type of despicable conduct and not speaking up against it,” she said.

Goldstein told Deputy District Attorney Jordan Sanders that he must present enough evidence at the next hearing to convince the judge the full prosecution of Pugh, Windom, McGee and Allen can move ahead despite the DA’s concession. Sanders said in court Friday he didn’t want to file briefs that could reveal his legal strategy to the defense, but Goldstein didn’t give him much choice.

The racist text messages included instances where officers used racist slurs, memes, jokes and numerous references to people they were investigating, including some of the defendants in this case. The communications were discovered after the FBI and Contra Costa DA served search warrants and seized several officers phones, which prosecutors allege also contained evidence of far-ranging criminality.

All of the federally charged officers were arrested in a FBI-led sweep last week. At their initial appearances on Aug. 17, several were brought before a federal magistrate in handcuffs. But all who appeared were released on $100,000 bonds and only held in custody for a few hours. The officers have pleaded not guilty.