Next week will mark the fourth anniversary of the fatal stabbing of David Josiah Lawson, a 19-year-old Humboldt State University sophomore whose still unsolved killings left fissures throughout the local community.
Lawson died early in the morning of April 15, 2017, after he was stabbed multiple times — including once to the heart — amid a series of fights at an off-campus house party in Arcata. Kyle Zoellner, a then 23-year-old McKinleyville man, was arrested at the scene and charged with Lawson's murder but within weeks a Humboldt County Superior Court judge had dismissed the case against him, finding there was insufficient evidence to hold him for trial.
To commemorate the anniversary of Lawson's death, celebrate his life and maintain public awareness of the case, Lawson's mother, Charmaine Lawson, and other supporters have planned a five-hour event for April 17 that will feature a 4-mile "Justice for Josiah" walk and a fourth annual coat drive on the Arcata Plaza that will feature music and beverages. Those attending are encouraged to wear masks, abide by COVID-19 public health protocols and bring signs.
The investigation into Lawson's killing has been plagued from the start, as documented in reports by the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury and the nonprofit National Police Foundation, which was contracted by the city of Arcata to investigate the police response ("Organizational Failures," Feb. 27, 2020, and "The Reports are In," July 30, 2020). Police made potentially crucial mistakes processing and controlling the crime scene, and were unable to find an eye-witness to the stabbing or substantial physical evidence tying a suspect to the killing. Further, during a hearing held to determine if there was probable cause to hold Zoellner for trial, witness testimony depicted a chaotic scene with multiple violent altercations and accounts of what transpired that morning were often in conflict. A criminal grand jury convened in February of 2019 to hear evidence in the case voted not to indict anyone.
Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn, who was hired in January of that year, just after the case had been turned over to the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office, has pledged that his officers will keep investigating and has issued repeated calls and public service announcements urging anyone with information to come forward.
Meanwhile, a pair of lawsuits filed against the city of Arcata stemming from the case continue to move through federal court, each containing dramatically different allegations that illustrate the extent to which the case has been seen through the lens of race, as Lawson was a Black man and Zoellner, the only suspect named to date by police in the case, is white.
Charmaine Lawson has alleged in her suit that the city and its officials violated her constitutional rights to equal protection under the 14th Amendment by inadequately and incompetently investigating the case, alleging that racism and discrimination contributed to the city's "deliberately indifferent" policies, practices, customs, training and supervision of officers related to the investigation. Further, Lawson's suit alleges the city acted with "personal animus" toward her when it ignored or failed to act on recommendations by a former FBI agent brought in as a consultant on the investigation and that the city has an "established custom and/or practice" of treating homicides with African American victims differently than killings of their white counterparts.
The case had been slated to go to trial this year but the catastrophic Glass Fire in Sonoma County destroyed the home of Lawson's lead attorney, Kyndra Miller, prompting both sides to agree to push the trial back to Nov. 29.
A case brought against the city by Zoellner, meanwhile, alleges racism and discrimination of a different sort and, in some cases, what appears to be an entirely different set of facts, as it heads for a crucial hearing on the anniversary of Lawson's death.
On April 15, Edward Chen, a federal judge in the Northern District of California, is slated to consider a motion seeking to dismiss the bulk of Zoellner's suit, which alleges police unfairly targeted him in the case because he is white, leading to his "unlawful" arrest, malicious prosecution, the denial of medical treatment, defamation of character and — more recently – attempted extortion.
In a 69-page complaint laden with typos, repetition and apparent non sequiturs — this one amended for a fifth time after a federal judge gave him one last chance to fix deficiencies in legal theory — Zoellner argues that police arrested him at the scene of Lawson's stabbing simply because he is white, while Lawson and many other of the party's attendees were Black. This, Zoellner alleges, was part of a city policy dictating that people of color not be investigated for crimes committed within city limits.
"In 2017, the police chief with the approval of the city managers ... had implemented a policy of not investigating minority groups such as African American and Hispanics and students from HSU that are part of the minority groups listed above," the complaint alleges. "Since Humboldt State University's recruitment of minority students is a large driver of racial diversity in Humboldt County and accounts for half of the city's population, this policy allowed HSU to recruit students of color, which in turn resulted in economic prosperity and greater population for the city of Arcata."
Zoellner's complaint also alleges some "facts" that had not previously been in the public record and do not align with testimony at his preliminary hearing, though the complaint offers no evidence or sworn witness declarations to support them. Specifically, he alleges that a witness saw Lawson go into the house during his fight with Zoellner to retrieve a kitchen knife and that after Lawson was stabbed, his friends moved Zoellner, who had been beaten unconscious, closer to Lawson's body and rubbed blood on his shirt in an attempt to frame him for Lawson's killing. The complaint posits that (Lawson?) may have been stabbed by his girlfriend or one of his friends, or that he have have simply stabbed himself.
Finally, Zoellner also alleges that in a settlement conference last year, an attorney representing the city threatened that he could be charged again in the case and jailed if he did not dismiss the civil lawsuit against the city.
In a motion asking the court to dismiss the bulk of Zoellner's lawsuit, attorneys representing the city argue that this latest complaint "adds more conjecture and legal buzzwords" but includes faulty legal theories and "does not provide factual support" for its "bold" accusations.
Another legal fight that may come to a head April 15 is a motion by Zoellner's attorney to subpoena transcripts and other records from the Humboldt County Criminal Grand Jury proceedings in 2019 — materials that are presumed secret unless a grand jury hands up an indictment, which did not happen in this case.
The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office's handling of the grand jury process was the matter of some controversy at the time, with at least one grand juror reportedly breaking an oath of secrecy to speak to local media and express concerns about whether the case was presented fairly. Attorneys representing the city argued that Zoellner has failed to offer any "specific facts" as to why the documents should be released, so "breaking the secrecy of these confidential proceedings is not warranted."
In response to the subpoena, Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming filed a notice of "non opposition" to the court, saying she does not have a position on Zoellner's motion and is not opposed to the release of the grand jury documents.
But if the court orders the transcripts and documents released, Fleming asked that they all be subject to a protective order if the court orders them released to "preserve the potential future prosecution of the person(s) responsible for the homicide of David Josiah Lawson."
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