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Protests Follow Grand Jury's Decision Not to Indict Suspect in Lawson Case 

click to enlarge Charmaine Lawson calls on the community to demand justice for her son, Josiah. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Charmaine Lawson calls on the community to demand justice for her son, Josiah.

Red hats, scarfs and sweaters enveloped the exterior of the Humboldt County Courthouse and "Justice for Josiah" and "I stand with Charmaine Lawson" signs sat on the steps on March 15, as Lawson began to speak.

"We're not going to stop fighting, this doesn't end," she said. "Thursday's decision doesn't end. (District Attorney) Maggie Fleming, if you can hear me, you have me fighting harder. I'm fighting harder."

Lawson's son, David Josiah Lawson, a 19-year-old Humboldt State University sophomore, was fatally stabbed at an off-campus party April 15, 2017, reportedly after being in at least two physical altercations with a 23-year-old McKinleyville man, Kyle Zoellner. Zoellner was arrested at the scene but a Humboldt County Superior Court judge dismissed the murder charge, finding there was insufficient evidence to hold him to stand trial.

Last November, interim Police Chief Richard Ehle turned the investigation over to the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office, saying there was "unequivocal physical evidence" linking a specific suspect to the murder. Fleming's office convened a criminal grand jury on Feb. 28 to investigate the killing with Zoellner as its target, according to minutes from a federal lawsuit Zoellner brought against the city of Arcata. The jury heard testimony from 25 witnesses, including "forensic analysts, including two separate DNA analysts, according to a grand jury report, a copy of which was obtained by the Journal.

"After a review of all the available testimony and evidence, including the opportunity to subpoena witnesses of our own choosing, based upon the state of the evidence at this time, the grand jury has declined to indict any person in the stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson," reads the report, which was signed by the grand jury foreperson.

Criminal grand jury proceedings are confidential and — in cases in which indictments are not handed down — their transcripts are kept under seal. In Humboldt County, the criminal grand jury is comprised of 19 members, 12 of whom would need to agree that there is probable cause to believe a suspect has committed a crime in order to hand up an indictment.

While a press release from the DA's office announcing the grand jury's decision took on an air of finality — saying that because the grand jury declined to indict, "no charges will be filed in the case" — there is nothing to prevent prosecutors from again bringing a case against Zoellner, or anyone else, in the future.

And in an email to the Journal, Fleming made as much clear, saying the grand jury's decision "has no effect on the possibility of future investigation or prosecution of the case."

APD's new chief, Brian Ahearn, who was hired in January after the department had turned the case over to Fleming's office, said after the grand jury's decision that detectives will work to find new witnesses and leads in the case.

"This case is solvable," he told the Journal. "We are going to have justice and we are going to hold someone accountable."

The Friday night protest, which came two days after the March 13 announcement and on the 23-month anniversary of Lawson's killing, began with a song, "Amor Eterno," played by Octavio Acosta, an HSU student. Then speakers, including Lawson, Eric Rydberg, Michihiro Clark Sugata, Mike Fennell and Shemya Vaughn, talked about their frustrations with the case and called for the community to make change and demand justice.

"We stand in front of a system that has failed," Rydberg told the crowd. "We need to stand together in solidarity and demand justice. We're going to stand with Charmaine and we're not going to stop until we do."

Fennell, who has grown close to the Lawson family and attended the preliminary hearing in the case, asked the white community to use its privilege to make change and also expressed the idea of recalling Fleming. The crowd cheered.

"The hard work should really be on the white community up here, to help change, we can't do it alone. It needs to be a collaboration," Fennell said. "I think it's time to consider a recall of our district attorney. ... Even if the recall doesn't work, we will weaken her chances in the next election."

Before the protest ended, Lawson called up all current HSU students to stand with her at the top of the steps. Half of the crowd joined her.

"This is our future behind us," Lawson said. "They are our future and we have to protect them. We cannot abandon them. ... You all are destined for greatness and you will change the world."

She then asked one of them to speak. Janaee Sykes, an HSU student and an acquaintance of Josiah's, told the crowd to continue to fight for Josiah.

"I'm extremely disappointed," Sykes told the Journal. "It hurts to know that he should be graduating. I just want the community to continue to support Charmaine. We owe it to her."

Earlier in the day — in what was her first appearance in the county since the grand jury's decision — Lawson went to HSU and spoke on the university quad about Fleming's handling of the case.

"I'm am going die fighting for my son," Lawson said. "I'm going to continue to fight."

In the quad, people were wiping and sniffling back tears as Lawson spoke about her son and told them stories about his character. Among the crowd stood HSU President Lisa Rossbacher, who, according to Lawson, called her Thursday and voiced genuine frustration and anger about the grand jury's decision. Lawson then told the retiring Rossbacher not to abandon her son in the time she has left as president. She also urged the crowd to continue to fight for Josiah.

"Do not turn your back on him. Do not abandon him. Stand for him. Fight for him. Because this could have happened to anyone of you," Lawson said.

Lawson said she plans to attend HSU's graduation in place of Josiah, who would have been in his last semester at the university. Until then, Lawson will continue to return to Humboldt to work on the Josiah scholarship and the housing program, "Josiah's House."

"Thank you all for coming out and supporting me," she told the crowd in front of the courthouse March 15. "If we have to go back to the city council, so be it. If we need to shut it down, so be it. We're not going anywhere. HSU students, I love you all and pray for your safety each and every time you leave campus, I pray for your safe return."

Thadeus Greenson contributed to this report, versions of which were first published at www.northcoastjournal.com.

Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or iridian@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

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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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