Justice for Josiah: Humboldt community demands action on third anniversary of Black student’s murder

Charmaine-Lawson-takes-Josiah’s-place-HSU-Black-Heritage-Graduation-051819-by-Karpani-Burns, Justice for Josiah: Humboldt community demands action on third anniversary of Black student’s murder, Local News & Views
Charmaine Lawson, with family and friends, takes the stage in place of her son Josiah at Humboldt State University Black Heritage Graduation. – Photo: Karpani Burns

No Justice, No Peace!

by Karpani Burns

April 15, 2020, marks 36 months since a Black 19-year-old Humboldt State University (HSU) student, David Josiah Lawson, also known as DJ and Josiah, was murdered on April 15, 2017, while attending an off-campus party in Arcata, Calif.


The off-campus party was attended by approximately 100 young people, mostly HSU students. An altercation occurred when an uninvited group of mostly white young women accused a group of Black and Brown people – DJ and his friends – of stealing their cell phone. They wanted Mr. Lawson and his friends to empty their pockets to prove they hadn’t stolen the alleged missing phone. 

Words were exchanged and a fight broke out. DJ and his friends attempted to leave the party and were pepper-sprayed by one of the white women. The fully escalated altercation finally resulted in the stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson.

The perception of many community members and students, some of whom attended the April 15 party, is that Josiah’s murder was racially motivated and that the Arcata Police Department (APD) was grossly negligent in their response to the emergency call that deadly night.

APD’s response was described by students as “crowd control” rather than attention to the severely wounded Lawson. Paramedics arrived 20 minutes after they were called. 

The hospital is less than a mile from the scene of the crime, but “crowd control” took precedence over saving the life of Lawson for the APD. The crime scene was not properly secured, nor evidence properly collected. Key participants in the altercation, along with other partygoers, were allowed to leave without proper questioning. 

APD Detective Eric Losey, who retrieved the knife, was unsure whether he had handled this evidence with gloved hands. (See “The Lawson Claim’s Litany of Embarrassing Arcata Police Department Errors Doesn’t Even Mention the Most Damaging One,” Lost Coast Outpost, April 25, 2018, by Rhonda Parker.) He has since resigned.

May 5, 2017 

After the two-week preliminary hearing and dozens of witnesses, Judge Dale Reinholtsen ruled insufficient evidence to hold suspect Kyle Zoellner, apparently based on the fact that no one had testified to having seen Zoellner stab Lawson. (See “Judge Dismisses Murder Charge in Slaying of HSU Student, ” North Coast Journal, May 5, 2017, and May 12, 2018, by Thadeus Greenson.) 

In the following months, to meet the demands of Josiah’s mom, Charmaine Lawson, HSU students and community members that the Arcata City Council respond to safety and racial issues brought into the spotlight by DJ’s murder, a monthly student safety meeting was created, which included updates on the Lawson murder case. This meeting, canceled shortly thereafter due to heated interactions, was reconvened by Charmaine’s advocacy on March 22, 2017, however, with HSU administration, city officials and the Lawson case update removed. (See “We need to talk about the murder of HSU student Josiah Lawson” by Akaelah Rain, Afropunk, March 2018.)

There is no indication that these safety meetings are still occurring.

April 9, 2018 

Retired FBI Agent Tom Parker, who contracted to work with the APD in the fall of 2017, had led the FBI investigation into the Rodney King beating and the Rampart scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department. He “regrettably” terminated his consultant agreement with the City of Arcata on April 29, 2018, due to his frustration with the lack of cooperation in the case. (See “Arcata Chief Abruptly Resigns Amid Growing Frustrations and the Looming Anniversary of an HSU Student’s Slaying” by Thadeus Greenson, North Coast Journal, April 12, 2018,)

“. . . it just added credibility to my observations and my opinions that there were major problems in this investigation with things not being done that should have been done . . .”

Retired Agent Parker had been working on the Lawson case, sorting through the APD’s investigative actions and process. He was convinced “that Lawson’s murder could and should be solved.” However, as a result of lack of cooperation, disregarded suggestions and basic investigative steps left untaken, Parker resigned.

In an interview with Tom Parker, joined by the North Coast Journal and hosted by Lorna Bryant on KHSU, Parker was asked if he believed he received all of the files in the case from the APD. Parker responded: “To be very candid about it, if those were the complete files and all these holes did exist, it just added credibility to my observations and my opinions that there were major problems in this investigation with things not being done that should have been done and questions that were not asked that should have been asked of key witnesses.” (See “Retired FBI Agent: Lawson’s Murder Can and Should Be Solved” by Kimberly Wear and Thadeus Greenson, North Coast Journal, April 16, 2018,)

April 10, 2018 

Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman resigned via email. Chief Chapman offered no particular reason.

Nov. 5, 2018 

Interim Police Chief Richard Ehle said he thinks there is “unequivocal physical evidence” linking a specific suspect to Lawson’s death. (See “APD Interim Chief: There is ‘Unequivocal Physical Evidence’ in Lawson Case” by Thadeus Greenson, Lost Coast Journal, Nov. 5, 2018.) The DNA report indicated Kyle Zoellner’s DNA to be present on the murder weapon, a knife.

Jan. 8, 2019 

Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming sent a statement in response to a request for information from Redheaded Blackbelt (“Mother of Josiah Lawson claims DNA on knife identifies her son’s ‘murderer,’ calls for justice” by Kym Kemp, Jan. 8, 2019) in a post earlier in the day on the Justice for Josiah Facebook page.

Fleming wrote: “The interpretation of the analysis of DNA on the knife is, of course, critical to the case. That is one of the issues we found incompletely resolved in the casefile we received from the Arcata Police Department; therefore, we requested additional information on the analysis from the California Department of Justice. We must know what experts will say under oath about the DNA analysis to make a just decision about the case. We are also seeking additional information on a second issue. Justice would not be served by a decision by our Office that does not take into account critical existing information.”

Feb. 28, 2019 

Upon the convening of the criminal grand jury, Assistant DA Joel Buckingham instructed the jurors not to indict Kyle Zoellner. Community members and interested parties do not know if Buckingham’s directions were his own or if they were those of his boss, DA Fleming.

One of the jurors, who was disturbed by the jury’s process, went public anonymously to describe the misleading and questionable direction they were given as jurors. (See “Juror in Lawson case speaks out, calls grand jury process ‘gross failure’” by Nazy Javid, KRCR Channel 7 News, April 10, 2019.)

Journalist Tony Wallin interviewed the criminal grand jury source, who requested to remain anonymous, in a May 8, 2019, article, “Jury Swayed from Murder Charges,” in the HSU publication, The Lumberjack. 

“The source … 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. …

“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 determination 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 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.’” 

May 18, 2019 

On what should have been Josiah’s graduation day, Charmaine Lawson, Josiah’s two siblings, friends and supporters came together to participate in Charmaine’s walk with the 2019 Humboldt State University graduates to receive David Josiah Lawson’s Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology, posthumously.

Dec. 6, 2019 

Following the Criminal Grand Jury’s decision in February not to indict Zoellner, Charmaine Lawson requested that California Attorney General Xavier Becerra take the case. Months later, on Dec. 6, 2019, a news release informed Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming that the California Attorney General’s Office would not assume responsibility for the prosecution in the David Josiah Lawson homicide, finding DA Maggie Fleming free of any conflict of interest or abuse of discretion in handling the case.

Charmaine-Lawson-2nd-from-right-w-Justice-for-Josiah-committee-at-Coat-Drive-Arcata-Plaza-1219-by-Karpani-Burns, Justice for Josiah: Humboldt community demands action on third anniversary of Black student’s murder, Local News & Views
Charmaine Lawson, second from right, with members of the Justice for Josiah committee enjoy the warmth of love and community at the 2019 3rd Annual Annual Coat Drive on the Arcata Plaza in Humboldt County, California. – Photo: Karpani Burns

Justice for Josiah vigils continue to be held every month on the 15th at the Arcata Plaza, Arcata City Hall. Humboldt County Courthouse, or other designated venue, although in the face of the COVID-19 event, the March vigil has been postponed, as might others in the coming months.

Charmaine Lawson continues, as she has for almost three years now, to travel to Arcata from Southern California six to eight months each year to bring her love, support shared grief, and engage with students, supporters and community members. She created the Annual Coat Drive to share the love and warmth of coats, jackets, hats, gloves, scarves, socks, toiletries, backpacks and blankets for those in need. 2019 was the Third Annual Coat Drive.

In January 2019 Charmaine partnered with the Eureka NAACP in establishing the Josiah Lawson Memorial Scholarship Fund. The Josiah Lawson Memorial Scholarship 2019 recipients were:

• Ayana Rae Watson, Eureka High School

• Lavender Alice Sharon Weburg, Arcata High School

• Zora Jeanette Culps, McKinleyville High School

Feb. 7, 2020 

Dr. Cornel West came to speak at HSU. While taking questions from the audience at the end of the evening’s dialogue, he was approached by an inspired student who had FaceTimed Charmaine to speak with Dr. West. 

Holding up a Justice for Josiah T-shirt and a picture of Josiah, Dr. West told Charmaine that she is one of the “grand freedom fighters” he had been talking about throughout the evening to a packed Van Duzen Theater of 699 students, faculty and community members. 

Dr. West continued to share with Charmaine that she was “putting a smile on Fannie Lou Hamer’s face and mine. You know what I’m talkin’ about. You stay strong.” It was a beautiful moment for the entire house and especially for so many Justice for Josiah supporters to be witness to the powerful encounter.

National Police Foundation – The Report

From The National Police Foundation website: “The National Police Foundation’s mission is to advance policing through innovation and science. It is the oldest nationally-known, non-profit, non-partisan, and non-membership-driven organization dedicated to improving America’s most noble profession – policing.”

“leadership errors,” “mistakes,” “errors,” “tactical missteps” and “failures,” paralyzing investigative efforts into the murder of David Josiah Lawson during the critical first 72 hours

A report from the foundation was requested by the City of Arcata in August of 2018 by City Manager Karen Deimer and expected to be completed by May of 2019. However, May came and went with no announcement as to receipt of the report, which spiked consequent speculation as to whether the report had indeed been received, but not released to the public as promised. 

The bi-weekly question during the public comment period at Arcata City Council meetings then became focused on exactly when the Police Foundation Report was expected. The response over the next eight months became as redundant as the question, without a definitive answer from the city manager – until this February.

The unredacted report, “National Police Foundation Independent Review of the Police Response to the Homicide of David Josiah Lawson,” was released to the public a full year and a half – and $35,000 – after it was requested.

In response to the report’s receipt and release, the article “Organizational Failures” by North Coast Journal staff members Iridian Casarez, Thadeus Greenson and Kimberly Wear, published Feb. 27, 2020, draws from the report “leadership errors,” “mistakes,” “errors,” “tactical missteps” and “failures,” paralyzing investigative efforts into the murder of David Josiah Lawson during the critical first 72 hours.

The report proposes 36 recommendations to mitigate the present deficits plaguing basic efficient performance of the Arcata Police Department.

The outstanding failure in the Lawson case, that “(m)any of the basic tenets of crime scene security and management were not followed,” springs boldly from the report. 

According to Ruth Schneider of the Times-Standard in “Report: Arcata police were ‘underprepared’ to investigate killing of Lawson” on Feb. 2, 2020, “the current police chief, Brian Ahearn, called the report a ‘roadmap for change’ in the department.”

Readers are encouraged to read the entire “National Police Foundation Independent Review of the Police Response to the Homicide of David Josiah Lawson.”

What next?

The Arcata City Council has made no outreach to the community indicating that they are using their influence and leverage to respond to the continuing demands of HSU students and community members to light a fire under SOMEBODY to bring justice to all for the brutal taking of the life of David Josiah Lawson. 

There is silence on the investigative front. The community continues to put pressure on elected and appointed officials to do their jobs, to demonstrate an active role in providing safety to students and community members and to prioritize justice for all. That will continue.

Young Lawson was, as are most students of color, recruited by HSU into the unsafe whiteness of Arcata, with no warnings about local white supremacist tendencies and racial tensions offered during the recruitment conversation. More alarming is HSU’s historical unsatisfactory attention to creating guaranteed safe space for students once they arrive on campus. 

‘Justice-for-Josiah’-‘50000-reward’-poster-1, Justice for Josiah: Humboldt community demands action on third anniversary of Black student’s murder, Local News & Views

Charmaine sent her precious child to this community assuming his safety at school away from home, to realize his dreams and fulfill what she saw as his being destined for greatness – heartbroken and traumatized when she received the early morning phone call about his murder.

Ms. Lawson has, over the past three years, spent significant energy working with the regents of the UC system to modify the recruiting process of students of color to include policies to ensure student care and safety once they arrive on campus. This work will continue until students feel safe and welcome.

Also in discussion are next steps to include partnering or building coalition with other parents who have lost children to violence, with organizations seeking justice to replace injustice and other yet undiscovered entities. Charmaine has always voiced the fact that while she seeks justice for the loss of DJ, her fight is for all parents and communities unable to grieve for their lost children because of the injustice of no justice.

Replace Humboldt District Attorney Maggie Fleming 

Charmaine and the Justice for Josiah movement have been relentless in calling out Humboldt District Attorney Maggie Fleming’s lackluster performance in doing her job with professionalism and without bias. There is growing vigor to vote her out at the end of her term. We were successful in getting the McKinley statue of racism and colonization removed from the Arcata Plaza last year – next, DA Maggie Fleming.

Four HSU students over the past 40 years have been murdered locally; in the past 16 years, two of those homicides have been African American men. Both cases, that of Cory Clark, a 29-year-old sociology student murdered Oct. 6, 2001, and that of David Josiah Lawson, a 19-year-old criminology student murdered April 15, 2017, remain unsolved. (See “Murders of HSU Students of Color” by Héctor Alejandro Arzate, El Leñador, Oct. 5, 2017.)

The persons who murdered David Josiah Lawson and Cory Clark, taking them from family and community, have yet to be held accountable and, more alarmingly, freely walk the streets of Arcata and Humboldt today.

Say Their Names: David Josiah Lawson, Cory Clark

Karpani Burns works with the Justice for Josiah committee in Northern California and volunteers with the San Francisco Bay View newspaper and California Prison Focus to advocate for the unheard voices behind the walls of the prison industrial complex. She may be reached at blisshiker@gmail.com.