MARTINEZ — In an unprecedented ruling statewide, a Contra Costa judge on Friday dismissed gang charges against four men under the California Racial Justice Act, ruling that county prosecutors have disproportionately targeted Black people with sentencing enhancements that open the door for life in prison without parole.
It is a case already under heavy scrutiny because two of the defendants were directly referenced in racist text messages sent by Antioch police officers who investigated their alleged crimes. The texts — part of a much larger scandal involving racism, alleged civil rights violations and dozens of impugned officers — made light of injuring the men during their arrests and referred to Black people in explicitly biased, hateful ways.
Contra Costa Judge David Goldstein’s Friday ruling did not take into consideration any of the racist texts. Rather, Goldstein based it on a decade of data — what he called a “significant statistical disparity” — showing that gang charges are more often filed against Black people. The stunning development clears the way for any Black person who has faced or is facing those charges in Contra Costa over the past decade to challenge them in court.
“I assure everyone that I don’t take this decision lightly in any way,” Goldstein said in court.
Goldstein is also soon set to hear arguments about whether the racist texts by Antioch officers constituted a separate violation of the Racial Justice Act, a new state law intended to weed out racism in the superior courts. This week, county prosecutors agreed that the texts had.
In making his decision Friday, Goldstein relied on data that both prosecutors and defense attorneys largely agreed upon that showed that Black people were from 6 to 8 percent more likely to be charged with “special circumstance gang enhancements” than people who weren’t Black. Those enhancements, alleging gang membership and added on top of the underlying criminal charges at issue in a case, can greatly increase the sentence a defendant receives.
Goldstein threw out the gang enhancements against four East Bay men — Eric Windom, Terryon Pugh, Keyshawn McGee and Trent Allen — who are accused of fatally shooting a man to benefit an Oakland gang. His ruling does not affect the murder, attempted murder and conspiracy counts against them.
Friday marks the second time that prosecutors in Contra Costa have made California history for violating the Racial Justice Act. Last October, Judge Clare Maier ruled that a county prosecutor used “racially coded language” that “evoked racial stereotypes of African American men” during a two-defendant murder trial and threw out murder convictions for both men.
Maier’s ruling dealt specifically with a portion of the act that refers to the prosecution’s statements during trial, while Goldstein’s ruling cited a different subsection that covers the charging practices of an entire DA’s office.
Evan Kuluk, a lawyer with the county’s Alternate Defender’s Office and an attorney in both cases, told this news organization that “the impact of today’s ruling is an acknowledgement that racial bias infects every stage of the criminal legal process.”
Goldstein’s ruling calls into question dozens of other similar cases filed in Contra Costa, going back 10 years. Contra Costa DA Diana Becton — the first Black person and first woman ever to serve in that role in the county’s 173-year history — says her office now plans to look back at some of those cases with this new ruling in mind.
“The District Attorney’s Office recognizes that today’s ruling is one of significance for offsetting systemic racial disparities within the criminal justice system,” Becton said. “The court’s ruling provides direction, and my office will review similarly charged cases to promote fair and equitable prosecution.”
For many defense attorneys in Contra Costa, Friday’s ruling was a seen as vindication after years of calling on Contra Costa prosecutors to audit their own filing decisions. In 2019, Becton partnered with the Vera Institute for a project intended to identify racial disparities in the DA office’s case data but Becton has yet to release the underlying data.
Chief Public Defender Ellen McDonnell said Goldstein’s ruling “drives home the unfair charging practices that too often result from the role of implicit bias in our legal system.”
“Testimony in this case demonstrates that the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office does not have policies, procedures, or guidelines for imposing life without parole enhancements, which causes implicit bias to influence charging decisions,” McDonnell said in an email to reporters. “This has a disparate and damaging impact on Black people and leads to the dramatic overrepresentation of Black people in our county’s criminal legal system.”
An hour after Goldstein’s ruling, demonstrators took to the streets of Martinez to protest the Antioch Police Department in a march that started downtown and ended at the Wakefield Taylor Courthouse. Participants included several plaintiffs in a recently filed civil lawsuit intended to secure federal oversight of the Antioch police force, as well as Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe, who has called for all the officers who sent racist texts to be fired.
The racist texts were discovered after the FBI seized phones of several officers amid an ongoing criminal investigation into more than a dozen current and former law enforcement officials who worked in Antioch and Pittsburg. They include messages among officers as they surveilled the four alleged gang members in March 2021.
Officer Eric Rombough, who repeatedly referred to Black people as “gorillas,” bragged about and later made good on a promise to use violence against the men, according to a report issued by a DA senior inspector. The gang unit officer later texted colleagues pictures showing two of the defendants in their hospital beds, the texts show.
With the FBI criminal probe still looming, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a policies and practices investigation into the Antioch police force last week, saying that internal data suggested “concerning” civil rights abuses.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the type of project the Vera Institute did for the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office. The story has been updated.