by Alex Anderson and August Linton
A bill dedicated to slain Humboldt student David Josiah Lawson is being considered by the California state legislature this year. If ratified, AB 644 would require the CSU system to collect and report back to the state discrimination data and surveys at all of their campuses.
It’s been nearly six years since 19-year-old Lawson was murdered at a house party down the street from campus on April 15, 2017. At approximately 2:50 a.m., a 911 call went out to the Arcata Police Department stating that someone had been stabbed at a party on Spear Ave. When police arrived, Lawson was lying on the ground with multiple stab wounds, one of which pierced his heart. Lawson was transported to the hospital and was pronounced dead at 4:07 a.m.
At the scene, 23-year-old Mckinleyville resident Kyle Zoellner was detained by police as a possible suspect. Zoellner’s clothes were covered in blood, which can be seen on police dash cam footage from that night. In the days following the incident, Zoellner was charged with murder and a preliminary hearing began. On May 5, 2017, after five days of preliminary hearings, the judge in the case ruled that there was not enough evidence to move forward to a jury trial and Zoellner was subsequently released.
Months went by following the preliminary hearing with still no new suspects. Students, advocates, and community members were outraged with the handling of the case.
Charmaine Lawson, Josiah’s mother, spoke at an Arcata City Council meeting on Nov. 16, 2017 where a large crowd of protestors and advocates showed support for Lawson and expressed their grievances with the city’s handling of the case. By Oct. 31, 2018, then-interim APD Police Chief, Richard Ehle, announced that APD’s investigation was ending and that all findings would be turned over to the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office.
In February of 2019, under immense pressure, Humboldt District Attorney Maggie Fleming convened a criminal grand jury for the Lawson case. The grand jury came to the decision that no one would be indicted for the stabbing of Lawson. Following the decision, a member of the jury spoke anonymously through a video released by North Coast news. This anonymous juror called the grand jury process a gross failure.
“Several voted for manslaughter, four or five voted for murder,” the anonymous juror said to the reporter. “The deputy district attorney said that we could subpoena Mr. Zoellner, the suspect, but he discouraged us from doing so.”
About a year following the grand jury ruling, on Feb. 20, 2020, the National Police Foundation released a report nineteen months in the making. It found that APD was unprepared to investigate the Lawson case.
Since Lawson’s death, Charmaine Lawson has made regular visits to Humboldt County, raising awareness about her son’s case and holding vigils for his memory in front of the Humboldt County courthouse or in the Arcata Plaza. She has been an outspoken critic of DA Maggie Fleming, and started an annual coat drive in her son’s honor.
Former CPH student Naomi Waters drafted the bill based on her experiences as a Humboldt student. It was introduced on February 9, and was sponsored by Representative Reginald Jones-Sawyer.
“From my specific experience at Humboldt, being a student leader, I myself was on the receiving end of hate…in the community and also on campus,” Waters said.
As an activist in the community, Waters said that a case like Lawson’s was bound to happen in Humboldt.
“I feel like the energy and the ineptitude of the institution in the CSU as a whole allowed for the conditions that eventually led to Josiah Lawson’s death,” Waters said. “And for me, I had seen that quite plainly. So when I heard about Josiah I wasn’t surprised…my friends and I who were organizing, we kind of knew something like this would happen and we were quite vocal about it.”
Waters says that she left Humboldt because of the violence against her, and transferred to UC Riverside.
“While there I was working with the UC Student Association, and so for me that was a seat of power that I could [use to] possibly begin working on something like this,” Waters said.