In our collective years covering crime in Humboldt County, a hard truth we've come to realize is that justice is rare — even rarer in a courtroom. The criminal justice system is a misnomer, as the very best it can deliver is protecting the community from a perpetrator while giving them a very limited chance at reform. That's it.
True justice, by contrast, requires systemic, communitywide responses. It requires amends and demands progress.
For the better part of three years now, people have gathered at vigils, protests and marches to rightly demand justice for David Josiah Lawson, the 19-year-old Humboldt State University sophomore brutally stabbed to death at an off-campus party on April 15, 2017. Last week, we gained bracing insight into why that justice has proven so elusive — at least from a criminal justice standpoint — with the release of the National Police Foundation's report detailing the litany of mistakes made in the first 72 hours of the Arcata Police Department's homicide investigation.
The plain truth is that those early errors will make it difficult — if not impossible — to get a conviction in this case, absent a confession or an eyewitness to the stabbing stepping forward years after the fact. APD Chief Brian Ahearn, who took his post in December of 2018, has pledged his department will keep working the case until it winds up back in court. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity or ability, and we wish him success in that effort.
But to us the more promising aspect of Ahearn's comments is that he did not dispute his department's mistakes, didn't parse the report's findings. Instead, he owned them, pledging to follow each of the report's 36 recommendations so the next time there's a critical incident, APD is better prepared. And while the report found no evidence that APD officers or other first responders acted with racial bias, he did not dispute that some in the community felt and continue to feel bias played a role in the events that left a 19-year-old black man dead that morning and allowed a white suspect to continue living as a free man.
APD's job moving forward, Ahearn said, is to be respectful of people's "lived experiences" while working very hard to show them bias has no place in the department.
As painful as it is, there are real indications Josiah's death is helping to create a more just Arcata Police Department.
In a similar vein, we commend Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer's decision to release this report in its entirety as a step toward justice. Leading a city government that has at times been lambasted for obfuscation in its response to Lawson's death, Diemer could easily have redacted large portions of this report, claiming they might hamper APD's investigation. She did not, instead releasing the report in its entirety. Believing sunlight is the greatest disinfectant, we applaud this move as a step toward justice.
We believe justice for Josiah is attainable, if not in a courtroom then in our community, on his behalf and in his name.
It will take bridging the campus-community divide and making sure HSU students know they are valued and respected here, that no matter where they're from or what they look like, they are members of our community with all the same rights and responsibilities as those who have been here for generations. As the report indicates, APD has work to do in this regard but so, too, do all of us. In the wake of Lawson's death, we've been pleased to see campus-community potlucks and events, like the We Are Your Community day at the Farmers Market. These are positive steps. We need more of them.
The campus also needs to do more to make sure the students recruited to make Humboldt their homes are prepared for — and supported through — that transition. Under the leadership of new HSU President Tom Jackson Jr., there are positive indications that work is being done and that's a step toward justice for Josiah.
That work can't succeed without accountability. We were mystified to see in the foundation's report that HSU administrators — including the interim dean of students — "declined to return our calls requesting an interview." An HSU spokesperson expressed surprise at this and said the university is trying to track down who the foundation contacted and when, and why calls went unreturned. We can only hope this was an honest miscommunication and not an attempt to dodge the foundation's gaze.
Another lesson we hope is made plain by the foundation's report is the damage irresponsible media coverage can do. In this case, multiple media outlets widely reported on the comments of one of Lawson's friends who, clearly traumatized after trying in vain to save his friend's life, made some allegations about the inadequacy of the medical response to Lawson's stabbing. A handful of outlets reported these allegations without any effort to substantiate them or even interview those accused of bias and incompetence — allegations clearly debunked in the report. But the damage has long since been done and the foundation's report indicates the projection of this narrative may have dissuaded witnesses from cooperating with the investigation and "enlivened the emotions and perspectives of racial bias in the community in a way that continues to challenge healing."
Finding justice for Josiah will require some introspection from all local media outlets and a resolve that when the next critical, racially charged incident happens in Humboldt we will report it with the thoroughness and care that responsible journalism demands.
Justice also requires commitment to truth, whether it be a department's leadership owning its mistakes or a witness being willing to publicly admit to some things they'd rather not in order to bring a killer to account. At times over these last three years, through a court hearing to determine if the man suspected of stabbing Lawson could be held to stand trial and its aftermath, true honesty seems to have been a commodity in scant supply.
We know what justice looks like. It's government systems that work for everyone. It's media that's accurate and thorough. It's neighbors who believe the best in each other, pick each other up and recognize that an injustice brought upon any of us is an injustice brought upon all of us. It's a community that refuses to accept bias, bigotry and apathy.
In this sense, we can find justice for Josiah. But true justice won't be brought by a new investigative lead, a fresh witness or a court's ruling. It's not something that's going to burst through a hole in the sky. Instead, it will come slowly, gradually, as we all work to make this a more just and equitable place to live.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.
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