Photo illustration by Megan Bender

Jury swayed from murder charges

Source calls Josiah Lawson trial unprofessional and amateur

Source calls Josiah Lawson trial unprofessional and amateur

A source with knowledge of the criminal grand jury that presided over the stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson has expressed concerns with how the proceedings took place. The Lumberjack has agreed to withhold the person’s name for protection of their identity. The source said the trial was unprofessional, poorly investigated and wasn’t given the attention it deserved.

The source also said Deputy District Attorney Joel Buckingham used the charge of self-defense to steer the grand jury away from a charge of manslaughter or murder.

“Maggie Fleming and Buckingham’s motives were contrary to protecting the community from a killer,” the source said. “The whole thing was an amateur performance. The DA, the judge and police officers all seemed amateur. It all seemed unprofessional, especially for the level of this case.”

The source said the decision to not indict Kyle Zoellner was based on self-defense, but to their understanding the grand jury’s task was to vote only on murder or manslaughter. On April 19, 2017 Zoellner pled “not guilty” to a charge of murder and was released on May 5, 2017 after Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholsten said evidence was insufficient to hold him.

Buckingham never told the grand jury that Zoellner made a claim of self-defense in the murder of Lawson, according to the source. During the preliminary hearing on May 4, 2017, Arcata Police Department Detective Todd Dockweiler was asked by Assistant District Attorney Roger Reese if Zoellner thought about pulling out a knife because he was getting beaten up. Zoellner said “he wouldn’t do that” and “he would rather take a beating than stab someone,” Dockweiler said. The mention of self-defense was never made.

David Wise, a San Francisco criminal defense attorney, said a grand jury’s objective is to decide whether or not there is probable cause and enough evidence to indict or not indict a person who may have committed a crime. Wise has 26 years of legal experience and went on to say if a defendant never claims self-defense but claims innocence, then that is a decision for a regular jury, not a grand jury.

“They can decide the acts they heard can determine the murder was malicious, but they wouldn’t say it was because of self-defense,” Wise said. “The grand jury is there to decide on either indictment or no indictment, and self-defense never comes into play.”

Former Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos agrees with Wise and said if a suspect denies they did a crime, then self-defense doesn’t make sense as an option.

“Under those circumstances it doesn’t make sense to me,” Gallegos said. “That makes things a little more quizzical or puzzling.”

Gallegos was Humboldt County’s district attorney for 12 years and said a prosecutor can steer a grand jury a certain way. He said the public has some reason to believe a grand jury is fair and represents the community’s values, however he also acknowledged it is possible for prosecutors to go into court with a slant, or intent. He said if a prosecutor wants an indictment, they’ll get an indictment. In 28 years of practicing law, Gallegos said prosecutors are usually not asking for self-defense unless there is an indication of a crime.

“If a defendant claims they did not stab the victim, generally one doesn’t get a self-defense instruction if it isn’t consistent with the defendant’s case,” Gallegos said.

The source said Buckingham guided the grand jury on deciding a non-indictment decision by ordering them to make a decision on self-defense before making a decision on an indictment. According to the source, deliberation lasted less than six hours over a three-day period. On March 11, deliberation began and the source said Buckingham gave each member of the grand jury 20 pages with information and definitions pertinent to the case. The definitions of “legal self-defense,” “manslaughter” and “murder” were on those pages, in that order, and read aloud by Buckingham.

There are distinct differences between a grand jury and regular jury. Wise said a grand jury makes a decision whether or not felony charges should be rendered against somebody so they can be tried by a regular jury on a later date.

Wise said a grand jury and regular jury have different standards of law. A regular jury decides beyond a reasonable doubt someone committed a crime while a grand jury decides on cause to indict.

“The grand jury is a prosecutor, a secret proceeding with no defense lawyer and no one cross examining witnesses,” Wise said. “It’s secret, in a regular [jury] there are two lawyers defending their case.”

During the testimonies the source said one of the three surprise witnesses claimed they were punched in the face by Lawson a few months prior to Lawson’s death. According to the source the witness wasn’t at the party and didn’t know who punched them until photos of Lawson surfaced in the media after his murder. On April 3, during a KMUD News evening talk, DA Fleming spoke of the witness, Christopher Griffin, and said they brought him in front of the grand jury because “it is our responsibility to present any and all evidence that is relevant to the charges. That is our duty, that is our obligation.”

When the source was asked why they thought Griffin was called in to testify the source said, “it only affected the image of Josiah Lawson’s character. It was an attempt to defame his character.”

When asked if Zoellner had any witnesses called to the stand to state similar claims on his character, the source said no and that Buckingham told the grand jury more than once that Zoellner had no past violent acts or criminal records.

Former Humboldt County DA Paul Gallegos said if there is an indictment and not all evidence was put forth in front of the grand jury, then defense attorneys would say the prosecutor didn’t do things right. Gallegos said in a criminal case the victim doesn’t have the same rights as the defendant and because of this it is not uncommon to bring in character witnesses against the deceased.

“The one currently being prosecuted is the defendant or suspect and in a criminal case it’s the defendant’s rights we have to protect because they are being prosecuted,” Gallegos said. “The defendant is the person we are taking rights from. The defendant has rights the victim doesn’t.”

The source also said there were a total of 25 witnesses that took the stand. Wise said there is no average number of witnesses that go in front of a grand jury because every case is different, but 25 is unusually high.

“Twenty-five seems like a lot unless it was a complicated corporate fraud documented case,” Wise said. “That’s like a very complex case with people around the world.”

The source said during a preliminary vote, the grand jury had 15 of the 18 jurors in favor of Zoellner stabbing Lawson by the end of March 12. When the grand jury reconvened on March 13, a juror claimed Zoellner’s stabbing was in self-defense and became angry and annoyed if someone disagreed with them. The source said this person was intimidating, had threatening mannerisms and appeared to change the vote of most of the jurors toward self-defense. The end result of the grand jury was Zoellner killed Lawson on April 15, 2017 in self-defense.

“It seemed like it was rushed,” the source said of the entire proceeding. “The Deputy DA did not display the confidence of an attorney speaking in a court. He seemed very cautious or worried or careful, as if he knew he was doing something wrong and the grand jury would know he was doing something wrong.”

The Lumberjack reached out to the Humboldt County District Attorney’s office and is currently awaiting a response.

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