Lawson investigation ‘far from over,’ says Arcata police chief

DA won't file charges after grand jury refuses to indict suspect in 2017 fatal stabbing

People holding “Justice for Josiah” signs gather in front of the Humboldt County courthouse in Eureka on Wednesday evening. (Jose Quezada — For the Times-Standard)
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Nearly two years after the fatal stabbing of David Josiah Lawson, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office announcement today that a grand jury chose not to indict anyone for the crime was met with public protests — and a promise from Arcata’s police chief that the investigation into the 19-year-old’s death was “far from over.”

Following District Attorney Maggie Fleming’s statement that no one would be charged in the 2017 homicide of the Humboldt State University student, protesters took to the steps of the Humboldt County courthouse in Eureka.

David Josiah Lawson was fatally stabbed at a house party in Arcata in April 2017. (Times-Standard file)

Lawson was fatally stabbed in the early morning hours of April 15, 2017, in a fight at an off-campus house party in Arcata. The Arcata Police Department announced on Oct. 31, 2018, that it had submitted its homicide investigation to the district attorney’s office. After a criminal grand jury convened on Feb. 28, hearing testimony from 25 witnesses — including experts in forensics and DNA — it chose not to indict, according to the DA’s office, which announced today that no charges will be filed in the case.

“We were hoping there was enough forensic evidence to prove who the killer was and we just fell short,” said Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn. “We understand this is a very complicated case, but the investigation is far from over.”

Ahearn said “conflicting vantage points” from the various witnesses present the night Lawson died may have made the evidence insufficient for the grand jury.

No details of the grand jury proceedings or votes have been made available, said Deputy District Attorney Joel Buckingham.

“Our take was (the case) was something that should certainly be presented (to a grand jury),” Buckingham said.

The DA’s office decided to put the case to a grand jury to avoid pretrial publicity, allow witnesses to testify confidentially and create a swifter trial process had the grand jury chosen to indict, Buckingham said.

In an email to the Times-Standard, Arcata Mayor Brett Watson said the city’s police would renew their investigation into Lawson’s death.

“The outcome is disappointing and not what we hoped for,” Watson said. “The city brought considerable statewide homicide expertise in to complete the investigation. We remain committed to solving this case for the Lawson family and our community. Under Brian Ahearn, our new chief of police, the city has increased staff dedicated to criminal investigation and I’m confident that they will get to work immediately.”

A statement from the Arcata Police Department stated, “We will not rest until Josiah’s killer is identified and held accountable.”

Disappointment and pain

Both Lawson’s death and Humboldt County’s reaction to it have sparked waves of activism calling for justice. Activists, community members and officials alike expressed deep disappointment in both today’s announcement and at the pace of the investigation.

Lawson’s mother, Michelle-Charmaine Lawson, did not respond to a request for comment today. She wrote in a Facebook post in January that DNA evidence had been taken from the knife used to stab her son.

“Every time I look at Josiah, I see my sons,” said Sharrone Blanck, president of Eureka’s local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, adding that she felt “immense sorrow” for the Lawson family and deep respect for his mother.

“This came down to how poorly the APD initially handled the situation,” Blanck said. “If you don’t have the information you need to bring a conviction, you don’t bring someone to trial. Because you’ve got one shot. It hinges on how the police force handled this situation initially. They said they did it badly and they’ve made corrections.”

Arcata police arrested Kyle Zoellner, a then-23-year-old McKinleyville resident, at the scene of the stabbing. Zoellner pleaded not guilty to murder and a related weapons charge at his April 19, 2017, arraignment. Humboldt County Judge Dale Reinholtsen ruled on May 5, 2017, that there was insufficient evidence to hold Zoellner for trial, intensifying protests that preceded Zoellner’s arrest and that have continued to this day. Protesters have condemned the Arcata Police Department’s initial response to the scene, its lengthy investigation, and Humboldt County’s justice system. During the investigation of Lawson’s death, Arcata police have undergone intense criticism and two changes of leadership: Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman announced his retirement in April 2018; interim chief Richard Ehle, named in June 2018, was replaced by Ahearn in November of that year.

“My students were at that party,” said Eureka resident Lora Bristow, a former professor of sociology at HSU who joined today’s gathering outside the Humboldt County courthouse. “I heard the stories. I came. I sat through that preliminary hearing because my students could not. The hearing was bulls–t. Every step of the way the police reaction, the first thing they did, every step has been of such poor quality that we have no faith in any kind of justice. And now this? So the police, everybody involved with the preliminary hearing, the continued police investigation through two more police chiefs, the DA’s office, and now the grand jury?”

Others at the protest said the case highlighted racial injustice.

“What we’ve been saying all along: If you were to switch the roles, the race roles in this situation, we wouldn’t be here. And Josiah would be in jail from that night,” said Jill Larrabee, who added she had been involved in community response to Lawson’s death for over a year. “And that’s a reality that no one in this system, in the DA’s office, is willing to acknowledge.”

Renee Byrd, an assistant professor of sociology at HSU, said the grand jury’s decision not to indict was both “ordinary” and “devastating.”

“Our criminal injustice system consistently fails to provide anything approximating justice when Black lives are cut short,” Byrd said in a text message to the Times-Standard.

HSU President Lisa Rossbacher released a statement today offering her condolences and directing students to the campus’ psychological services.

“I join you in feeling an immense sadness for Josiah’s mother Charmaine and other family members, his friends, and our entire community. Josiah was a positive and beloved member of our University and community,” Rossbacher said. “His loss was incredibly painful, and we continue to mourn him.”

Third District Humboldt County Supervisor Mike Wilson, whose district includes Arcata, said it was “hard to come up with the words for the disappointment that I feel and many others feel.” He also expressed condolences for Lawson’s family and friends.

“I don’t know where this is going to go from here,” he said. “It certainly is a blow to the community.”

Ahearn, who was named chief in November, said today that city law enforcement would provide space for members of the public to voice their reactions to Fleming’s announcement.

“We as a police department fell short in terms of our goal, which was to bring Josiah’s killer to justice,” Ahearn said, “but we’re going to continue working on the case.”

The Arcata Police Department today asked anyone with information regarding Lawson’s death to call the department at 707-825-2520 or 707-601-6943.

Times-Standard staffers Shomik Mukherjee, Rob Peach, Philip Santos and Ruth Schneider contributed to this report.

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