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APD Chief: Justice for Josiah Hinges on Witnesses 

On fifth anniversary of fatal stabbing, AG offers support

click to enlarge Those attending a vigil on the fifth anniversary of David Josiah Lawson's unsolved killing pose for a photo with his mother, Charmaine Lawson.

Photo by Mark McKenna

Those attending a vigil on the fifth anniversary of David Josiah Lawson's unsolved killing pose for a photo with his mother, Charmaine Lawson.

April 15 marked another grim milestone for Charmaine Lawson: the fifth anniversary of the still unsolved killing of her son, David Josiah Lawson.

At a vigil held on the Humboldt County Courthouse steps, Charmaine Lawson repeated her vow to never stop seeking justice for her son, as the Arcata Police Department once again issued a call for those who attended to the house party where the 19-year-old Humboldt State University sophomore was fatally stabbed to speak with investigators in the case.

"It is paramount that witnesses come forward," Chief Brian Ahearn said in a statement. "Our investigative team remains at the ready to respond to anyone at any time to document their statement as we continue the fact-finding process."

That fifth anniversary of Josiah Lawson's stabbing at an off-campus party before dawn on April 15, 2017, amid a series of fights at a home off of Spear Avenue comes amid a handful of developments in the case.

In January, Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer and Ahearn wrote a letter to California Attorney General Rob Bonta asking for assistance in the investigation, noting its "profound" impact on the community and stating the Arcata Police Department is small "and lacks the resources and the depth of expertise that we believe this case requires."

Ahearn told the Journal on April 19 that the request has already borne some fruit, with the chief of Bonta's law enforcement division calling him multiple times to discuss the case, new information and investigative strategies. Additionally, Ahearn said the Attorney General's Office has offered to make its Department of Justice agents available to interview potential witnesses who might not feel comfortable working with Arcata police.

And that's potentially an impactful offer, Ahearn said, noting that APD has only been able to identify 40 or so of the more than 100 people who attended the house party at which Josiah Lawson was stabbed and that some of them have been reluctant to speak with detectives from the department.

The investigation into Lawson's death has been troubled from the start, plagued by a series of crucial initial missteps in controlling and processing the crime scene and securing potential witnesses. And because Lawson was Black and Kyle Zoellner — a then 23-year-old McKinleyville man who was arrested at the scene and remains the only suspect police have named in the case — is white, allegations of racial bias have persisted.

A February 2020 report from the National Police Foundation found that while the emergency response did everything possible to try to save Lawson's life, "many basic tenets of crime scene security and management" were not followed. The report cited a systemic failure by the police department's then leadership to provide adequate training on crime scene management and command skills, which severely hindered the ensuing investigation, providing "fertile ground for false narratives ... and created an environment that may have discouraged witnesses and others with factual information from coming forward."

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

Ahearn said his department continues to struggle getting witnesses to cooperate with the investigation, noting someone came forward about a year ago with new information about the case and pointed detectives to another witness in the case who refused to speak with them.

"We have to be patient and meet with people at a time and a place that's comfortable and safe for them," Ahearn said, adding that he understands Lawson's killing was a tremendously traumatic event for those who were there and he's hopeful some who might be unwilling to speak to APD detectives would be comfortable talking to a DOJ agent.

What seems clear, Ahearn said, is that additional witnesses will be needed to get the case back into a courtroom.

While Zoellner was arrested at the scene, a murder charge filed against him was dismissed a few weeks later when 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 dearth of physical evidence in the case.

Almost two years later — with DNA evidence showing Lawson, Zoellner and two other unidentified people having contributed to genetic material found on a knife found at the scene that police believe to have killed Lawson — Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming convened a criminal grand jury to consider charges against Zoellner, but the jury opted not to indict anyone in the case, sending it back to APD for further investigation.

While some — including Charmaine Lawson — have said they hope a new district attorney taking office next year after Fleming's term ends may bring a different result, Ahearn said he believes there are "gaps in the case" that need to be filled.

"We need witnesses to corroborate that physical evidence," he said.

In July, Charmaine Lawson settled a lawsuit she filed against the city of Arcata alleging the city and its officials violated her constitutional rights to equal protection by inadequately and incompletely investigating the case, with racism and discrimination contributing to what the lawsuit described as the city's "deliberately indifferent" policies and practices related to the investigation. Under the terms of the settlement, the city made a $200,000 payment to the Lawson family, a $25,000 donation to the David Josiah Lawson Memorial Scholarship fund and agreed to the painting of a memorial mural.

A separate lawsuit brought against the city by Zoellner alleging unlawful arrest and false imprisonment, denial of medical care and defamation of character, meanwhile, continues to work its way through federal court. In February, a federal judge dismissed all of Zoellner's allegations except two, which are scheduled to proceed in separate trials.

The first will take up Zoellner's allegation that former APD detective Eric Losey engaged in an act of malicious prosecution when he filed a police report that was later determined to include inaccurate information. Losey wrote in the report that a witness — Jason Martinez — who said he'd witnessed the stabbing had identified Zoellner as the man wielding a knife. The detective later testified this was written in error, as Martinez had simply described someone matching Zoellner's appearance as the person who stabbed Lawson, which he said he'd inadvertently misrepresented in his report. In his ruling, District Judge Edward Chen said it should be left to a jury to decide whether Losey acted with malice and intentionally fabricated evidence in the case or merely made a mistake, which would be protected by qualified immunity.

(It's worth noting that Martinez's testimony during Zoellner's preliminary hearing was in direct conflict with that of another witness, Paris Wright. While Martinez testified he saw Lawson square up with a man who made several stabbing motions to his abdomen, at which point he saw Lawson run across a driveway and dive into the bushes where he was later found bleeding, Wright testified that he found Lawson lying on his back with Zoellner in a headlock on the other side of the driveway and, after separating the two, realized Lawson had been stabbed.)

The other allegation that will be adjudicated in a separate trial is Zoellner's claim that a lawyer representing the city threatened to have him criminally prosecuted if he moved forward with the civil case. The lawyer has denied he made any such threat, saying he was simply advising Zoellner that he'd be deposed under oath if the case moved forward — providing a sworn statement that could then potentially be used in a criminal prosecution.

Zoellner was deposed in the case but a transcript of the deposition has not been released publicly. Asked if Zoellner said anything criminal investigators found to be of value, Ahearn said he couldn't comment on that matter, citing the still pending litigation.

Meanwhile, Charmaine Lawson and Diemer were scheduled to meet with Bonta personally on April 18. Diemer did not respond to an email inquiring about the meeting and an attempt to reach Charmaine Lawson for this story was not immediately successful, but Ahearn said he believes the mere fact that Bonta took time to personally meet with them is a positive sign the state is genuinely interested in helping.

With the fifth anniversary of Lawson's death bringing renewed attention to the case, Ahearn said he's firm in the belief that someone out there saw what happened to Lawson and can provide the missing piece needed to bring his killer to justice. And, he said, he's confident that person will eventually come forward.

"We're not going to quit and we're not going to go away," he said. "People are going to come forward. There will come a point in their lives when they feel the need to come forward."

Ahearn urged anyone who attended the party at which Lawson was killed — even those who may have left hours before the stabbing — to contact APD's tip line at (707) 825-2590 and tell investigators what they saw. Even those who don't have any direct knowledge about the killing may be able to point detectives to other witnesses in the case, he said.

"I want to get this case back in a courtroom so we can get justice for Josiah, justice for Charmaine, justice for (Lawson's brother) Anthony, justice for (Lawson's sister) Chloe," he said. "We have a lot of work left, but it starts with witnesses."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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

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