Charmaine Lawson Holds 31-month Vigil for Her Son, Hopes Documentary Will Bring Outside Attention to Unsolved Case


It has been 31 months since Humboldt State University sophomore David Josiah Lawson was killed.

On Friday, the anniversary of her 19-year-old son’s death, a group of a few dozen students and community members surrounded Charmaine Lawson at a small vigil at the Arcata Methodist Church, during which the group watched Who Killed Josiah?, a short documentary by the Southern California station KCET that they hope will bring renewed attention to the still-unsolved killing. (Find the documentary embedded below.)

The documentary describes Arcata as a town “polarized over allegations of racism and police incompetence surrounding the death of college student Josiah Lawson.” For Charmaine Lawson, the documentary is an emotional roller coaster.

“Watching it the first time was heartbreaking,” she says. “When I saw the documentary the first time, I didn’t talk to anyone for two weeks. I was in another zone — very difficult to watch.”

David Josiah Lawson, a criminology major from the city of Perris in Riverside County, was stabbed to death at an off-campus party around 3 a.m. April 15th 2017. Kyle Zoellner, a then 23-year-old McKinleyville man, was arrested at the scene and charged with Lawson’s murder but the charge was dismissed weeks later, when Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholsten found insufficient evidence to hold him.

Nearly two years later — in February — a criminal grand jury convened to consider charging Zoellner declined to hand up any indictments in the case, a rare outcome in criminal grand jury proceedings. The outcome was so concerning to some that a member of the grand jury even reportedly broke the law by speaking with the media, telling multiple outlets that the grand jury believed Zoellner killed Lawson but jurors subsequently voted that he’d acted in self-defense. The grand jury’s decision not to indict has elevated tensions and unease about the case, which ultimately prompted Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming to ask the California Attorney General’s Office to handle any future prosecutions in the case. As of late August, she had not received a response.

After the grand jury decision, Charmaine Lawson says she has also turned to the state prosecutor’s office looking for justice and is still awaiting whether or not it will take Josiah’s case. Since her son’s killing, Charmaine Lawson has traveled to Humboldt County almost monthly to host vigils and says she has no intention of slowing down until she reaches justice.

“Humboldt County is beautiful — it’s not the town but the people here for generations with entitlement that’s the problem,” Lawson says. “The people who need to be blamed for this are people in power.”

Because the documentary was made and broadcast beyond the redwood curtain, Charmaine Lawson is confident her son’s case will get more attention than it has. Although Lawson is grateful for KCET’s efforts in telling her son’s story, she said there inaccuracies in the film, as well as misconceptions. At one point, the narrator says there were three women involved who were at the party when the stabbing occurred. In fact, there were four women with Zoellner that night — Naiya Wilkins, Angelica McFarland, Lila Ortega and Casey Gleaton.

“I appreciate the documentary and KCET for spending many months putting this together,” Charmaine Lawson says. “But for me, I want to start telling DJ’s story and stop having others tell it.”

The most troubling misinformation Lawson found with the documentary was the showing of Zoellner’s booking photo, in which he has black eyes and a bloodied, bruised face. Lawson says the documentary shows the photo without proper context, making it appear as if Zoellner was beaten up before he got into the fight with Josiah.

“Zoellner’s face was not like that before stabbing my son,” she says. “That happened afterward, when he tried running and DJ’s friend apprehended him.”

During a hearing to determine if there was enough evidence to hold Zoellner to stand trial in 2017, testimony from witnesses at the party that night conflicted significantly on how Zoellner sustained his injuries.

After the documentary ended, the group at the church vigil spent nearly two hours discussing what community members can do to help moving forward. Some indicated they were eager to keep pressure on Arcata City Council and Fleming to continue pursuing justice for Josiah.

Asked what her next steps are, Lawson answered quickly: “Replace Maggie Fleming or get her recalled.”

“People don’t like outsiders and, when they know people who live here, they’re going to protect them,” Lawson says. “The outsiders will never be protected. My son was an outsider.”

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