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Six Years Later

As David Josiah Lawson's mother renews call for justice, APD says witnesses are essential to move the case forward

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On April 14, one day before the sixth anniversary of David Josiah Lawson's unsolved killing, Charmaine Lawson stood on the Humboldt County Courthouse steps to once again call for justice for her son.

For a several moments, she gathered with about a dozen supporters who were holding up signs, some reading "Stacey Eads Can You Hear Us," "DNA Does Not Lie," "Justice for Josiah" and "Killers Off Our Streets," as the group went through a series of chants, including "Six years, no justice," "Say His Name. David Josiah Lawson" and "What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now. Now, Stacey, Now," before stopping to speak to reporters.

Charmaine Lawson had just finished a meeting with recently seated Humboldt County District Attorney Stacey Eads, which she called "hopeful," saying Eads told her that she was reviewing the case and "would probably have an answer for us in about three months."

"I think you have a district attorney that's about justice," she said. "I think she'll do the right thing."

Charmaine Lawson made clear, however, that she didn't see a reason for Eads' time frame and considers her predecessor Maggie Fleming responsible for a lack of resolution in the case, saying the former DA "failed us," pointing to what she described as the "botched" preliminary hearing in May of 2017 that ended with the murder charge facing the only suspect named by police dismissed, and a subsequent criminal grand jury proceeding two years later that did not to lead to an indictment.

"We have more than enough evidence," Charmaine Lawson said.

The investigation into her son's death has been fraught with issues since the early morning hours of April 15, 2017, when the 19-year-old Humboldt State University sophomore was fatally stabbed during an altercation at a large off-campus party, hampered by a series of crucial initial missteps in securing and processing the crime scene and identifying potential witnesses.

Allegations of racial bias have also persisted, as Lawson was Black and Kyle Zoellner — the then 23-year-old McKinleyville man initially arrested at the scene and charged with Lawson's murder — is white.

Charmaine Lawson said her son would be in prison if the situation was reversed.

"My son came to this county to go to school," she said. "For his life to be taken and no one held accountable is a disgrace."

While a February 2020 National Police Foundation report commissioned by the city of Arcata concluded emergency responders did everything they could to try to save Lawson's life amid a "chaotic scene," it also found "many basic tenets of crime scene security and management" were not followed. That, the report stated, impeded the investigation, sowing "fertile ground for false narratives ... and created an environment that may have discouraged witnesses and others with factual information from coming forward."

A few months later, a Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury report found "failures, ineptitudes and poorly executed police work" but stated "it did not find direct evidence of racial bias."

In an interview with the Journal this week, Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn, who took over the department in 2018, said bringing the case back into court depends on more witnesses coming forward. Of the estimated 100 or so partygoers gathered outside the home on a small cul-de-sac near campus that night in April of 2017, less than half have been identified and interviewed by investigators, he said.

"People who were at the party are essential to bringing this case back into the court," Ahearn said. "I can't emphasize that enough."

While the party was breaking up at the time of Josiah Lawson's stabbing, there were still "tens of people there," the chief said. He said he understands what they experienced was traumatic and some may have convinced themselves what they saw is not relevant, but the individuals who have not come forward are crucial to closing gaps in the investigation.

"We're asking people to reflect, to look into their hearts and think about Charmaine and Anthony and Chloe and DJ," Ahearn said, referring to Josiah Lawson's younger brother and sister, "and try as hard as they can to give us a call."

For those who might be uncomfortable talking with APD investigators, the chief said the state Attorney General's Office has offered to provide investigators and has been giving other support to the department, which included putting together an investigative team to review the case last year.

Ahearn said he is confident in the physical evidence, including genetic material on a knife believed to have been used in the stabbing that was found at the scene with DNA contributed by Lawson, Zoellner and two other individuals, but there are still gaps.

"The key now is to have eyewitnesses to corroborate the physical evidence," he said. "But we are not making progress absent people coming forward. This is a person case now; it relies on people to get it over the finish line and get it back into court. No one saw the stabbing occur and that's what we need, and there were a lot of people right there."

While Zoellner was arrested at the scene, a murder charge filed against him was dismissed a few weeks later after a Humboldt County Superior Court judge found prosecutors had presented insufficient evidence to support it, with witness accounts of the events leading up to the stabbing conflicting, no one having come forward who witnessed the stabbing itself and what was then a lack of physical evidence in the case.

Almost two years later, with the DNA evidence in hand, Fleming convened a criminal grand jury to consider charges against Zoellner, but the jury opted not to indict anyone in the case, leaving it back with APD for further investigation.

Ahearn said the department received a new tip about a potential witness around this time last year that led investigators to an individual who denied being at the stabbing scene and was upset at being contacted, asking APD not to do so again.

"Those are the hurdles this case continues to be up against," he said. "We are not going to stop until we've identified and interviewed everyone who was there. ... We have a long way to go."

As part of her meeting at the District Attorney's Office, Charmaine Lawson said she asked Eads to request that the state Attorney General's Office take over the case moving forward but, if it declines, she'd like it to at least play a role in any prosecution and that it not be "only left to the DA."

Eads and the Attorney General's Office did not respond to a request to comment for this story.

Asked how it was to be standing on the courthouse steps again, asking for resolution to the case, she answered, "I'm pissed. Because my son should be here. I should not have to do this."

The next day, on the anniversary of her son's death, Charmaine Lawson led a 5K walk and run in Arcata in honor of her son and all of those who are missing or were murdered in Humboldt County, saying she wanted the community to come together in love, to celebrate and to stand together.

"I'm DJ's voice, and I'm not going away," she said.

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or [email protected].

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