APD Chief Vows to Keep Investigating Lawson Case Despite Grand Jury's Refusal to Indict

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David Josiah Lawson - SUBMITTED
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  • David Josiah Lawson
Shortly after the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office announced this afternoon that a criminal grand jury had declined to indict anyone in connection with the 2017 stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson, Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn told the Journal that his department is committed to continuing its investigation into the 19 year old’s slaying.

Ahearn, who took over APD in January, roughly two months after APD turned its investigation over to the DA’s office, said his department has so far fallen short in providing prosecutors with the proof needed to hold somebody accountable in the case. But Ahearn pledged that APD will continue working the case, re-interviewing witnesses, identifying anyone with whom police have not yet spoken from the party where Lawson was stabbed, and returning to old leads. He added that, with the support of the DA’s office, no expense will be spared on the case.

“This case is solvable,” Ahearn said. “We are going to have justice and we are going to hold someone accountable.”

Lawson, a sophomore at Humboldt State University, was fatally stabbed at an off-campus party before dawn April 15, 2017, reportedly after being involved in at least two physical altercations with a McKinleyville man — Kyle Zoellner — and his female friends. Police arrested Zoellner at the scene but a murder charge against him was dismissed weeks later by a Humboldt County Superior Court judge who found there was insufficient evidence to hold him to stand trial.

A press release from the DA’s office today said a criminal grand jury empanelled Feb. 28 to look into Lawson’s death heard testimony from 25 witnesses, including experts in forensics and DNA, but declined to indict “any person” in Lawson’s death and “therefore, no charges will be filed in the case.”

The Journal reached Lawson’s mother, Charmaine Lawson, this afternoon but she declined to comment, adding that she would be in Humboldt County this weekend. Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming did not respond to an email seeking comment this afternoon.

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Deputy District Attorney Joel Buckingham, who handled the criminal grand jury process for Fleming’s office, said confidentiality laws prevent him from speaking about anything that happened inside the grand jury room. Generally speaking, he said criminal grand jurors are given information about the potential suspects in a case and about potential charges that could be brought in an indictment. Prosecutors then bring witnesses before them. But Buckingham said it’s important to remember that a criminal grand jury is an independent investigative panel, with the power to subpoena evidence and witnesses and to pursue its own lines of questioning.

In Humboldt County, criminal grand juries are comprised of 19 individual jurors, 12 of whom need to agree to hand down an indictment charging a defendant with a crime or crimes.

It’s important to note that a grand jury’s declining to indict a suspect or suspects in no way precludes a subsequent grand jury or a prosecutor’s office from charging the case in the future. Until a jury is impaneled in a criminal case and sworn in at the outset of a trial, double jeopardy laws do not kick in.

Nonetheless, this can only be seen as a major setback for those wanting to see someone brought to justice in the case, as it is rare for California prosecutors to bring cases before criminal grand juries and even rarer for them to leave the proceedings without an indictment.

Lawson’s killing has been racially charged from the outset — Lawson was black and Zoellner is white, and some on both sides have charged the case would have been handled much differently had those roles been reversed. Protests quickly followed the dismissal.

In ensuing months, the investigation appeared to languish.

In the days leading up to the first anniversary of Lawson’s death, a former FBI agent brought in to consult on the investigation abruptly resigned from the case, later saying he felt APD wasn’t following his recommendations and had lied to him about the case. Less than 24 hours later, then-APD Chief Tom Chapman followed suit without offering any public explanation of his abrupt departure.

The case seemed to gain steam under interim APD Chief Rick Ehle, who said last fall that the department had brought in a host of new investigators to work the case, pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional resources toward bringing Lawson’s killer to justice. When his department turned the case over to the DA’s office in November, Ehle told the Journal that investigators had found “unequivocal physical evidence” linking a specific suspect to Lawson’s death, though he declined to name the suspect or describe the evidence.

But Fleming appeared less convinced as her office reviewed the case, telling the Journal in February that the California Department of Justice’s interpretation of the DNA analysis done on a knife found at the crime scene would be critical to the case.

“This is one of the issues we found incompletely resolved in the case file we received from the Arcata Police Department, therefore we requested additional information on the analysis from the California Department of Justice,” Fleming wrote the Journal in an email at the time. “We must know what experts will say under oath about the DNA analysis to make a just decision about the case.”

It’s unclear what exactly members of the criminal grand jury heard about that DNA analysis but, whatever it was, it wasn’t enough for 13 of them to support criminally charging anyone with Lawson’s death.
Protesters begin to gather in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse this afternoon to demand justice for Josiah. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Protesters begin to gather in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse this afternoon to demand justice for Josiah.
As of about 8 p.m., a group of roughly a dozen protesters had gathered in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse to demand justice for Lawson — a demand that thus far law enforcement has been unable to fulfill.

HSU President Lisa Rossbacher, meanwhile, sent a campus wide email alerting students and faculty that support services would be available for students until 11 p.m. today in the Jolly Giant Commons, with additional support available by calling 826-3236 for students, and 443-7358 for faculty and staff.

"I join you in feeling an immense sadness for Josiah's mother Charmaine and other family members, his friends and our entire community," Rossbacher wrote. "Josiah was a positive and beloved member of our university and community. His loss was incredibly painful and we continue to mourn him."

See a full press release from the city of Arcata copied below:



The Arcata Police Department would like to thank District Attorney Maggie Fleming and her team for their work on the David Josiah Lawson murder investigation. We would also like to thank the jurors of Humboldt County who committed their time to review this case.

The Arcata Police Department's goal is to present an investigation to the District Attorney that will meet the standard required by law for prosecution. We respect the decisions that have been made and will go right back to work to identify the suspect who murdered David Josiah Lawson.

"The outcome is disappointing and not what we hoped for. The City brought outside homicide expertise in to complete the investigation. We remain committed to solving this case for the Lawson family and our community. Chief Ahearn has increased staff dedicated to criminal investigations and they will immediately get back to work on this case," said Mayor Brett Watson of the Grand Jury decision.

The Arcata Police Department will build upon the initial investigation in search of witnesses who have yet to come forward; building leads as new information becomes available. We will not rest until Josiah's killer is identified and held accountable.

We continue to need the public's assistance to help identify witnesses who have information that will lead investigators to understand with specificity who is responsible for Josiah's murder.

Anyone with information regarding the murder of David Josiah Lawson is asked to call the Arcata Police Department at 707-825-2520 or 707-601-6943.
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