Update: The city of Arcata released a statement that is copied in its entirety below the original post, as are statements from Humboldt State University and the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office.
Arcata Police Department
Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen ruled this afternoon that there is insufficient evidence to hold Kyle Christopher Zoellner to stand trial on a charge that he murdered David Josiah Lawson on April 15.
Friends and family of Zoellner’s clapped as the judge announced his ruling, after which bailiffs quickly led the defendant out of the packed courtroom. Some who had been attending the hearing in support of Lawson, a 19-year-old Humboldt State University sophomore, wept in the hallway afterward.
Reinholtsen offered a lengthy explanation of his ruling and the deficiencies in the prosecutors' case against Zoellner, saying there wasn’t a single witness that put a knife in Zoellner’s hands that night, much less who claimed to have seen the fatal stabbing. And at this early juncture — just a few weeks after the killing — there is no physical evidence connecting the defendant to the 10-inch kitchen knife found at the crime scene or the killing, Reinholtsen said.
“We know (Lawson) was killed, we know he was killed by a knife and we know somebody at the party did it, but I don’t think at this point we have sufficient reason to think the defendant did it,” Reinholtsen said.
The burden of proof that needs to be met to hold a defendant to answer to a criminal charge is substantially lower than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt threshold needed to find a defendant guilty at trial. In a preliminary hearing, the judge is tasked with analyzing evidence, witness statements and credibility to determine if the facts of the case are such that they would lead an ordinary person to believe or strongly suspect the guilt of the accused.
After the hearing, HSU President Lisa Rossbacher urged patience with the process.
“I think we all tend to be impatient for resolution, but we need to be patient in the pursuit of justice and the truth,” she said, adding that HSU will continue to work with law enforcement on the case.
The five-day preliminary hearing saw more than a dozen witnesses take the stand, most offering inconsistent testimony that conflicted with that of other witnesses. The discrepancies ranged from insignificant to substantial, but were fairly constant. Depending on who was testifying, the house-party that began April 14 and stretched into the early-morning hours of the following day was attended by anywhere from 15 to 300 people, with the fatal confrontation occurring anywhere between 1 and 3 a.m. Testimony similarly differed on how the fist fights that preceded the stabbing began and who was involved.
This morning, Deputy District Attorney Roger Rees argued that he’d met his burden of proof despite the convoluted testimony.
“There’s a lot of conflicting evidence in the case — it seems to be a very confusing series of events that night,” Rees said.
But the prosecutor maintained that two pieces of testimony were consistent and warranted holding Zoellner to stand trial on the murder charge. Paris Wright, a friend of Lawson’s who took the stand Tuesday, testified that he saw Lawson holding Zoellner in a headlock on the ground in front of the Spear Avenue home and that when he separated the two men, Lawson was bleeding from stab wounds to his abdomen. Rees said a friend of Zoellner’s girflfriend, Casey Gleaton, testified that she saw Lawson and Zoellner squaring up as if to fight, which he argued corroborated Wright’s testimony.
Rees’ argument somewhat misstated Gleaton’s testimony, though, as she testified that she saw Zoellner and Lawson fighting when a group of about 10 men joined the fray and beat Zoellner unconscious. It was sometime later, she testified, that she saw Lawson collapse some distance away from Zoellner.
In explaining his ruling, Reinholtsen also pointed out that the testimony of Jason Martinez, a friend of Lawson’s, contradicted both Gleaton and Wright’s statements. Martinez testified that he was walking up the cul-de-sac toward the party when he saw Zoellner and a “slim” man squaring up as if to fight to his right when he saw the slim man make two stabbing motions toward Lawson’s abdomen before Lawson ran across the cul-de-sac in front of him and dove into the bushes. No other testimony in the case gelled with Martinez’s version of events.
In his final argument to Reinholtsen, Deputy Public Defender Luke Brownfield, who defended Zoellner along with Deputy Public Defender Kelly Neel, argued that the prosecution’s case hinged on an assumption. The assumption began with partygoers who accused Zoellner of the slaying, was continued by police investigators and ultimately handed off to prosecutors, Brownfield said, but there was no real evidence to support it.
The party was attended by 100 or so people, Brownfield said, yet “everybody is wildly inconsistent, nobody is saying the same thing. No two testimonies match.”
According to testimony during the hearing, the chaotic scene began when Zoellner arrived at the party around 2:30 a.m. to pick up his girlfriend, Lila Ortega, and her three friends, as their designated driver. Ortega was distraught — hysterical according to one of her friends — that she’d lost her new iPhone, so the group decided to go into the house to try to find it after Zoellner arrived.
While heading inside, the group encountered four people leaving the party — Lawson, his girlfriend, Ren Bobodilla, and brothers Kyle and Kristoff Castillo. Testimony universally indicated that Zoellner was polite and non-confrontational when asking the group if they’d seen Ortega’s lost phone. Testimony began to diverge from there, but generally agreed that two fights broke out from there: one between Bobodilla and Ortega, and another between Zoellner and one or all of the three men.
That fight seems to have ended when one of Ortega’s friends pepper sprayed Bobodilla, Lawson and the Castillos, who walked away toward Spear Avenue with their eyes and faces burning.
Things reignited, according to testimony, when Bobodilla returned to confront Ortega and her friends about what they had sprayed that caused a burning sensation in their eyes and faces and another fight ensued between the women. Lawson returned to check on his girlfriend, at which point the testimony becomes largely inconsistent and contradictory until Lawson is found bleeding in the bushes at about 3 a.m. He was pronounced dead at Mad River Community Hospital about an hour later.
Reinholtsen said he doesn’t generally believe the discrepancies in testimony were intentional, but were rather the product of a chaotic scene with lots of people, a very traumatic event and the “varying states of sobriety” of those involved. He said the testimony seems to make clear that the only people at the party with an apparent motive to have stabbed Lawson were Zoellner, Ortega and her friends, but the evidence just isn’t sufficient to implicate any of them at this point. But that may change with further investigation, he said.
Lawson “was killed at a party with a lot of people there, and none of those people seem to have seen that happen, which is somewhat difficult to believe.”
From the city of Arcata:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
POST PRELIMINARY HEARING STATEMENT
After five days of testimony, this afternoon a Superior Court Judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to hold Kyle Zoellner in the death of David Josiah Lawson. The following are statements from Arcata Vice-Mayor Sofia Pereira and Police Chief Tom Chapman:
Vice-Mayor Pereira: "My thoughts are with the Lawson family, our community and the students at HSU. We continue to grieve and search for answers to this senseless act of violence. The city and the police department's focus must continue to remain on achieving justice for Josiah. I have been in communication with the Police Chief and I know our officers are continuing their work on this case. Once the investigation is complete the city will also review all aspects of our response to this tragedy. I have confidence in our police department's dedication to solve this murder and I support their efforts to find the truth."
Chief Chapman: "The result of the preliminary hearing does not change the vigor in which we will continue to pursue this case. The men and women of the Arcata Police Department are committed to justice for Josiah. As shown by the sworn testimony at the hearing, this case is difficult. However, we will not stop our investigation. Our focus will remain on this investigation and the pursuit of justice."
“Humboldt State University is certainly disappointed by what appears to be a setback in this case. It is difficult to be patient, but sometimes necessary in the pursuit of justice. This is not over. The investigation is continuing, and the University will continue providing assistance to local law enforcement.”
From the district attorney's office:
May 5, 2017
The recently completed preliminary hearing concerning the tragic death of David Josiah Lawson did not result in Kyle Zoellner being held to answer for the charge of murder. In the hearing, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office presented all the information available, including testimony by seventeen witnesses with distinct accounts of key events. In addition, all available physical evidence was presented to the Court. The hearing proceeded while the investigation is ongoing because a person has the right to a preliminary hearing within 10 days of arraignment. The information presented in the hearing differed from the information available when the case was charged and additional information is expected, including more analysis of the knife found at the scene and analysis of blood samples found on clothing. Like the initial charging decision, any future charges in the case will be determined by available evidence. Anyone with additional information relevant to the investigation should immediately bring that to the Arcata Police Department. The District Attorney contacted the victim’s mother and her pastor to discuss the outcome of the hearing and advised her the investigation remains open.