Friday, March 29, 2019

DA Fleming Will Ask the Attorney General's Office to Handle Prosecution in Lawson Case

Posted By on Fri, Mar 29, 2019 at 5:51 PM

click to enlarge David Josiah Lawson - SUBMITTED
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Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming will formally ask the state Attorney General’s Office to handle prosecution of the David Josiah Lawson case going forward.


“Next week I will make a formal, in-writing request to the Attorney General’s Office to take over any future prosecution of the case,” she said in a release today. The release ended with a caveat: “However, I should point out that the Attorney General is under no statutory obligation to take the case.”


In the release, which was also a response to Charmaine Lawson, Fleming stated: “I agree with Ms. Lawson that any future prosecution should be handled by the appropriate state-level agency." However, she added that the Attorney General only takes on prosecution of cases if there is a conflict of interest for the current agency. She added that the AG previously decided not to take on the case because it found no conflict of interest in Humboldt County’s District Attorney’s Office, however, she has decided to formally ask the AG to take on prosecution of the case due to public perception. Fleming cites “misinformation” from media coverage as the prime source of the public's suspicion about a conflict of interest.


“How has the perception of a conflict of interest developed? In part through media coverage that has given extensive exposure and credence to people who have provided misinformation,” Fleming wrote.

Charmaine Lawson, mother of the Humboldt State University sophomore who was fatally stabbed at an off-campus party in April of 2017, issued a statement yesterday criticizing the Arcata Police Department's handling of the homicide investigation, calling it "beyond negligent."

She also urged Fleming to ask the state Department of Justice to intervene in the case.

A McKinleyville man, Kyle Zoellner, was arrested at the scene of Josiah Lawson's stabbing and charged with his murder but a Humboldt County Superior Court judge dismissed the charges against Zoellner a few weeks later, saying prosecutors had insufficient evidence to hold him to stand trial. APD continued investigating the case and again turned it over to the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office in November, with then interim Police Chief Rick Ehle saying detectives had found "unequivocal physical evidence" linking a specific suspect to Lawson's death, but on March 13 prosecutors announced that a criminal grand jury had decided not to indict "any persons" in the case, which has now been sent back to APD for further investigation.

The example Fleming provides in her release refers to Ehle's statement. She went on to say, "When asked about that statement by the District Attorney’s Office, Mr. Ehle claimed to have been misquoted. The distribution of misinformation about ongoing cases is unprofessional, potentially cruel and damaging to people involved, and contrary to the pursuit of justice."

Fleming also responded to Lawson’s request for the criminal grand jury transcripts, saying her office is legally unable to provide them. Fleming further points to complicating factors regarding the DNA evidence, noting, "simply finding the DNA of a person known to have been bloodied in an altercation on a weapon associated with that altercation provides little or no new information about the incident," and that "DNA from multiple contributors can complicate the interpretation of DNA evidence."


Read the full press release below:


The Humboldt County District Attorney offers the following response to the recent press release by Charmaine Lawson:

1. I have previously pointed out that reasonable interpretation of DNA evidence in some cases requires in-depth evaluation by experts. DNA evidence may or may not be able to distinguish whether someone touched an item or just bled on it. For example, simply finding the DNA of a person known to have been bloodied in an altercation on a weapon associated with that altercation provides little or no new information about the incident. Of course the detection of DNA from multiple contributors can complicate the interpretation of DNA evidence. As indicated in its report, the Grand Jury of 19 randomly selected Humboldt County citizens that recently decided not to indict anyone in the Lawson case received testimony on the DNA evidence from two experts. The process included the opportunity for the Grand Jury to ask the experts any questions they chose and call more witnesses if they thought that necessary.

2. Case evaluation necessarily includes all the evidence and assessment of what each piece of evidence contributes to determining the facts. The only thing that matters is the level of proof that the sum total of the evidence provides. It makes no sense to demand a certain kind of evidence or arbitrarily give one kind of evidence preference over another - our Office has never done that and never will.

3. Grand Jury transcripts become available by law only under certain circumstances that currently do not apply. Therefore our Office is not in possession of a transcript and we do not have the option of giving one to anyone else.

4. I have repeatedly invited the California Department of Justice and Attorney General to be involved in the Lawson case. The Department of Justice has contributed significantly to evidence gathering and interpretation in the case, including the analysis of DNA. The Attorney General’s Office – which has the capability to handle prosecution of the case – has so far decided not to be involved because they have concluded the agency with primary responsibility for criminal prosecution in Humboldt County - the District Attorney’s Office - does not have a conflict of interest.

However, I agree with Ms. Lawson that any future prosecution should be handled by the appropriate state-level agency (the Attorney General), specifically because at this point some members of the community have developed the perception that our Office has a conflict of interest. In fact our Office has no conflict of interest and we have made the best possible decisions at every point in this case given the information available to us. How has the perception of a conflict of interest developed? In part through media coverage that has given extensive exposure and credence to people who have provided misinformation. For example, recent media reports have heavily relied on a statement by former Arcata Police Department (APD) Interim Chief Rick Ehle that APD had delivered “unequivocal physical evidence” in the case. When asked about that statement by the District Attorney’s Office, Mr. Ehle claimed to have been misquoted. The distribution of misinformation about ongoing cases is unprofessional, potentially cruel and damaging to people involved, and contrary to the pursuit of justice.

Because the predominance of such misinformation in this case has created the perception of a conflict of interest, next week I will make a formal, in-writing request to the Attorney General’s Office to take over any future prosecution of the case. Our well-chosen actions in the case leave open all avenues for any future prosecutions. However, I should point out that the Attorney General is under no statutory obligation to take the case.

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Iridian Casarez

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Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the North Coast Journal.

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