By The Vanguard Staff
MARTINEZ, CA – Gang charges against four men were dismissed Friday by Contra Costa Superior Court Judge David Goldstein under the California Racial Justice Act, ruling “county prosecutors have disproportionately targeted Black people with sentencing enhancements that open the door for life in prison without parole,” according to the Mercury News.
The story noted the case is “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 Mercury News added “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.”
The racist texts were discovered during a FBI criminal investigation into more than a dozen current and former law enforcement officials who worked in Antioch and Pittsburg, who allegedly made the comments when they were involved in a probe of gang activities in March of 2021, said the Mercury News.
“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,” according to Mercury News reporting.
CA Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a policies and practices investigation into the Antioch police force last week, noting internal data suggested “concerning” civil rights violations.
Although the judge’s ruling did not consider the racist texts, it was based on what the judge called “significant statistical disparity,” which he said shows “gang charges are more often filed against Black people” and 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,” said the Mercury News.
“I assure everyone that I don’t take this decision lightly in any way,” said Goldstein, who the Mercury News noted could soon “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.”
Goldstein said he used data from prosecutors and defense attorneys “largely agreed upon that showed that Black people were from six to eight 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.”
Although Goldstein tossed the gang enhancements against four East Bay men 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, confirmed the Mercury News.
It’s the second time 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 murder trial before throwing out murder convictions for both men, said the Mercury News.
Evan Kuluk, a lawyer with the county’s Alternate Defender’s Office and an attorney in both cases, told the Mercury News “the impact of today’s ruling is an acknowledgement that racial bias infects every stage of the criminal legal process.”
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—said in a statement her office plans to review past cases.
“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.”
In 2019, Becton partnered, said the Mercury News story, with the Vera Institute for a “project intended to identify implicit bias in the way cases are prosecuted but 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.”
McDonnell, in an email to the news media, added, “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.”