Charmaine Lawson still hasn't cashed the $200,000 check that came as a part of her settlement agreement with the city of Arcata. She says it took her four days to even open the envelope it was mailed in and it has now sat for weeks atop her son's urn.
Filed in November of 2018, the lawsuit alleged the city and its officials violated Charmaine Lawson's equal protection rights by inadequately and incompetently investigating the April 15, 2017, stabbing death of her son, 19-year-old David Josiah Lawson, with racism and bias contributing to what the suit described as the city's "deliberately indifferent" treatment of the case. The settlement agreement — which in addition to the $200,000 payment includes the city making a $25,000 donation to the David Josiah Lawson Memorial Scholarship fund and agreeing to the painting of a memorial mural — was reached in April but announced by the city July 7, about a week after a federal judge officially dismissed the case.
Speaking to the Journal, Charmaine Lawson said the settlement isn't about the money but her desire for all parties involved to focus squarely on bringing her son's killer to justice without the distraction of a trial that was scheduled to begin later this year.
"Money means absolutely nothing to me. Absolutely nothing," she said. "I just want to move on from this settlement and focus on getting the person who is responsible for my son's murder behind bars. They need to be held accountable and justice needs to be served. It has been way too long. That is really my focus. No amount of money is going to bring him back. I don't care if it's $100 million, it's not going to bring him back. I don't care if it's $5,000, it's not going to bring him back."
While the settlement agreement — a copy of which the Journal obtained through a request under the California Public Records Act — describes the $200,000 payment as "compensatory damages," the city does not admit any wrongdoing and specifies that liability for the "incident is disputed," describing the agreement as a "compromise."
Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer told the Journal the $200,000 will be paid by the Redwood Municipal Insurance Fund, the city's insurer, while the donation to the scholarship fund will be paid by the city directly.
As to the mural, the settlement stipulates that the city has granted approval for one to be created but states it will work with Charmaine Lawson to figure out the details moving forward, including where it will be located, how big it will be and how it will be funded.
More than four years have passed since David Josiah Lawson was found bleeding from fatal stab wounds outside a house party in Arcata shortly after 3 a.m. after several fights broke out. His killing remains unsolved. A then-23-year-old McKinleyville man, Kyle Zoellner, was arrested at the scene and charged with Lawson's murder, but a judge dismissed the case several weeks later, finding police hadn't collected sufficient evidence to justify the charge.
Charmaine Lawson, who lives in Riverside County, has been a regular presence in Humboldt County in the years since her son's death — holding coat and food drives, vigils and, most recently, a commemorative run — as she continues to call for justice, joined by other community members.
But the investigation into the HSU sophomore's fatal stabbing has been troubled from the start, plagued by a series of crucial initial missteps in controlling and processing the crime scene and securing potential witnesses, and subsequent trouble getting witnesses to come forward and cooperate.
A February 2020 report from the National Police Foundation found that while the emergency response did everything possible to try to save Lawson's life, "many basic tenets of crime scene security and management" were not followed. The report cited a systemic failure by the police department's then leadership to provide adequate training on crime scene management and command skills, which severely hindered the ensuing investigation.
The report also noted that while it found no evidence the chaotic crime scene interfered with first responders' efforts to save Lawson's life, a public "perception" that the emergency response was indifferent or racially biased (Lawson was Black and Zoellner is white) "provided fertile ground for false narratives" and may have created an environment that "discouraged witnesses."
That National Police Foundation report was followed a few months later by another by the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury, which found "failures, ineptitudes and poorly executed police work" but stated "it did not find direct evidence of racial bias."
A criminal grand jury convened in February of 2019 to hear evidence in the case, with Zoellner as its target, voted not to indict anyone.
Zoellner, meanwhile, has also filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging police lacked probable cause when they arrested him, defamation and malicious prosecution. It remains pending.
This April, as the fourth anniversary of Lawson's death approached, a renewed call was made for any witnesses at the crowded party on Spear Avenue to come forward.
In a joint public service announcement Chief Brian Ahearn recorded with Charmaine Lawson, they urge witnesses who may have attended to come forward and talk to investigators.
Speaking to the Journal last week, Ahearn said he still believes additional witness statements are what's needed to get the case back in court, adding that police still have been unable to speak with many of the more than 100 people who attended the party the night Lawson was stabbed. He underscored the importance of anyone who attended that night coming forward to speak to investigators, no matter what they saw, adding that even seemingly insignificant details of what transpired that night can help investigators piece together the puzzle and build the criminal case.
A $55,000 reward for information directly leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Lawson's killing has been established and remains in place.
The department has set up an anonymous tip line to field information in the case, which can be reached at (707) 825-2590, 24 hours a day.
Responding to a request for comment on the settlement, Charmaine Lawson texted a photograph before speaking to the Journal. It shows a small shrine honoring her son, with his guitar standing alongside his smiling portrait, a string of rosary beads and his posthumous diploma from Humboldt State University, all of which surround his urn, atop which sits the still unsigned $200,000 check.
"I just want to focus on bringing justice for my son," Charmaine Lawson said. "I call that check blood money. As you can see, it's not signed. It's blood money. It means absolutely nothing to me."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.
Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.