Lawyers for Antioch Police Officers Seek to Reframe Racist Texts in Court

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A sign carved into stone reads "Antioch Police Facility" with a vegetations and a building in the background.
An exterior view of Antioch Police Department headquarters on April 19, 2023. (Terry Chea/The Associated Press)

Antioch police officers who sent racist text messages are seeking additional defense protections and to avoid testifying altogether, as cases questioning whether racism factored into arrests they made get their day in court.

This comes as lawyers for four men accused of murder and attempted murder in a 2021 shooting sought to dismiss the charges against their clients during a hearing on Friday. They argued the messages sent by the investigating officers prove that the officers had a racial bias against the men.

The hearing is one of the first major tests of the Racial Justice Act, a 2021 California law prohibiting the state from seeking a conviction based on race. It’s also the first time officers involved in the texting scandal are set to publicly speak about the fiasco.

In the last few months, an ongoing federal investigation into criminal wrongdoing in the Antioch Police Department uncovered hundreds of racist text messages sent between officers, reported first by the East Bay Times. Nearly half of the police officers in the department were named in connection to the texts, with the majority of messages being sent between 2020 and 2021. The texts used racial slurs to describe Black and Latino Antioch residents, including Police Chief Steven Ford and Mayor Lamar Thorpe.

Some of the texts talk specifically about two of the four defendants in Friday’s hearing. All four are young Black men.

In the text messages, officers referred to the men using the n-word, joked about assaulting them during their arrests and shared photos of the injured men in their hospital beds.


Police attorneys argued that the officers — subpoenaed to appear as witnesses — should have their own lawyers present to defend them. Typically, witnesses answer questions from the district attorney and lawyers for the defendants and do not have their own lawyers present. In a packed courtroom on Friday, an attorney for the officers, Nicole Pifari, said that if the court found the nine officers to be racist, they would suffer “instantaneous, far reaching and likely permanent damage” to their reputations and employment opportunities.

She requested the officers’ attorneys be allowed to ask their own questions and call their own witnesses to defend the officers during the hearing — steps she said were essential to providing the full context of the message exchanges.

“When you are accused of something very serious, you have the right to defend yourself,” she said.

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Presiding Superior Court Judge David Goldstein agreed with the principle but said the Racial Justice Act does not provide for officers to have their own defense.

He said that if the court rules that the officers acted out of racism, it would not be the ruling that made the officers racist, but the underlying evidence.

He denied her request, but agreed that officers’ attorneys could be present to advise their clients on whether or not to invoke the Fifth Amendment: the officers’ right to stay silent if answering a question might incriminate them.

That, of course, is if the officers testify at all.

Lawyers for Chief Ford — also subpoenaed to testify — successfully argued to excuse the chief from testimony because he joined the department after the text messages were sent. Last Wednesday, the chief announced that he will retire on Aug. 11.

Additionally, at least five of the nine subpoenaed officers are claiming they are injured and cannot make it to court, according to the East Bay Times. But defense attorney Carmela Caramagno disputed that, saying her investigator saw allegedly injured officers driving tractors, hosting pool parties and walking leisurely.

“Like, what kind of medical leave you guys are on? For accountability, you guys need to be here,” said Shrielle Cobbs, the mother of defendant Trent Allen.

Contra Costa Public Defender Ellen McDonnell agreed.

“We have a situation where officers exchanged animal memes of Black and brown people, where they explained that they were targeting Black people based on their race. And we have four young Black men on trial here,” she said on Friday. “It’s critical that there be a full hearing and that each officer be questioned regarding their role in these text messages and the way they handled policing in this case.”

Seeing the messages was devastating for the families of the young men. Mariah Thomas is the fiancée of Eric Windom, and the cousin of Trent Allen, two of the defendants.

“They wanted to kill my cousin Trent Allen. Eric Windom, that’s my partner, my lover. The stuff that they said about them … it’s horrible,” she said.

The hearing will continue on Aug. 25 and all nine officers are under subpoena to appear. If they do not appear when called, Judge Goldstein could explore other ways to compel them to testify.