In her $500,000 claim against the Arcata Police Department, civil rights attorney Shelley Mack makes some startling, unsubstantiated statements about facts she says have been proven during the investigation into David Josiah Lawson’s murder.

Mack recently filed the claim on behalf of Lawson’s grieving mother, Michelle Charmaine Lawson, asserting that the Arcata Police Department’s investigation has been lax and incompetent, and that Charmaine Lawson has been lied to and kept in the dark.

If the assertions in the claim can be trusted, the APD has made significant progress since a preliminary hearing a year ago – Mack asserts that investigators have identified the murder weapon as a 10-inch kitchen knife, and they know whose blood was on it.

But it is unclear how Mack could know what she purports to know. She makes at least one demonstrable error of fact in the course of the claim, and her knowledge of court procedure seems shaky at times. It seems possible that she simply mischaracterizes forensic evidence presented during Zoellner’s hearing. [UPDATE: Mack responds here.]

Humboldt State University student Josiah Lawson, 19, was stabbed to death at a house party on April 15, 2017. Police arrested McKinleyville resident Kyle Zoellner at the scene, but he was released about two weeks later when a judge ruled there was not enough evidence to hold him. The murder charge was dismissed, and the subsequent investigation has seemingly produced few new clues.

Not so, according to Mack. To start with, she states in her complaint that the knife found at the crime scene was “later determined to be the murder weapon.”

Was it? During Zoellner’s preliminary hearing, it was learned a 10-inch kitchen knife was found under a car near where Lawson was stabbed. The knife had a 6-inch blade, so apparently it had a 4-inch handle. The one fingerprint found on the knife was not Zoellner’s. Fibers found on the knife did not match Zoellner’s clothing. During his ruling to dismiss charges, Judge Dale Reinholtsen pointed out it wasn’t even known whether the knife found under the car was the weapon used on Lawson. If Mack does, in fact, know that this knife was later found to be the weapon that killed Lawson, she doesn’t cite her source.

Next, according to Mack, Lawson “was stabbed multiple times with a 10-inch kitchen knife.”

That information was not revealed during the preliminary hearing. Lawson’s autopsy report hadn’t been prepared, and the pathologist who performed the autopsy was not called to testify. Now, apparently, it has somehow been established that the murder weapon, with its 6-inch blade, measured a total of 10 inches. Repeated calls to Dr. Mark Super, who performed Lawson’s autopsy, have gone unanswered.

Probably the most significant revelation in Mack’s claim is that blood from both Lawson and Zoellner were discovered on the knife found under the car.

“The initial (lab) returns only provided information related to the major DNA contributors,” Mack states in the complaint. “The request for further analysis would focus on minor DNA contributors on the knife using deconvoluted DNA analysis and potential touch DNA. The initial results showed that Zoellner and Josiah were major DNA contributors of the blood analysis sent to the laboratory.”

At the preliminary hearing, no mention was made of blood of any kind on the knife. If Mack’s claim is true, Zoellner’s blood on the weapon would be new, strong evidence connecting him to Lawson’s death.

Mack herself has not responded to several phone calls and emails, sent over four days, asking her to provide a basis for her claims – that the knife at the scene was later identified as the murder weapon, that the murder weapon was a 10-inch kitchen knife, and that Zoellner’s blood was on it. [UPDATE: To repeat — on the fifth day, she responded.Could she have been informed by Tom Parker, the former FBI agent who worked with APD on the investigation before resigning in disgust? The city has accused Parker of violating a non-disclosure agreement, but he claims he’s never said anything to jeopardize the investigation. All he did, Parker told the North Coast Journal, is tell Charmaine Lawson the APD didn’t conduct a forensic examination he recommended.

Deputy Public Defender Luke Brownfield, who represented Zoellner at the preliminary hearing, said he has seen the complaint, and he cast doubt on the assertions made within it.

“We don’t have any reason to believe that any of this stuff is true,” Brownfield said.

Asked whether the APD has ever released any of this new information, acting Chief Bart Silvers responded in an e-mail that “unfortunately I cannot comment on the complaint or any information contained within.”

But if these factual, forensic assertions in Mack’s claim are impossible to judge or substantiate, other aspects of the claim — dealing with matters of public record or court procedure — are clearly shaky.

In a flat-out false claim, Mack suggests the city has been uncooperative because “upon information and belief, Zoellner’s father is an employee of the city of Arcata.” Kyle Zoellner’s father, Eric Zoellner, has worked the past 14 years for Humboldt County. County spokeswoman Paula Mushrush said he has been employed there since 2004.

Mack also says the city of Arcata has refused to give Charmaine Lawson a copy of the preliminary hearing transcript, which is not a function that city government would be responsible for. Even if the city does have a transcript, it couldn’t be copied for Charmaine Lawson or anyone else, according to California law:

“Any court, party or person who has purchased a computable-reader transcript may, without paying a further fee to the (court) reporter, reproduce a copy or portion thereof as an exhibit pursuant to court order or rule, or for internal use, but shall not otherwise provide or sell a copy or copies to any other party or person.” (California Government Code 69954(d))

“Our transcripts are not to be copied,” said a long-time local court reporter who wanted to remain anonymous. “They are a work product of ours and they are owned by the court reporter.”

Mack and Parker also were interviewed recently on KHSU radio. During the interview they excoriated not only the APD but the District Attorney’s office, which called 19 witnesses during an “unheard-of” five-day preliminary hearing. Mack and Parker said the testimony of one witness, Lawson’s friend Paris Wright, would have convinced the judge to hold Zoellner for trial.

Wright’s testimony: He saw Lawson lying face-up on the ground, with Zoellner lying face-up on top of him. Lawson had Zoellner in a choke-hold. When Wright pried Lawson’s arms off and Zoellner rolled away, Wright realized his friend had been stabbed.

But Wright testified that he never witnessed the stabbing (no witness claimed they did) and never saw anything in Zoellner’s hands. It’s hard to imagine Wright’s testimony would have sufficed.

In any case, Brownfield says the criticism about the prosecution calling too many witnesses is “baloney.”

“We would have called those witnesses if the DA hadn’t,” he said.

District Attorney Maggie Fleming, while saying she can’t discuss Zoellner’s case in particular, offered some answers on why the district attorney can’t cherry-pick witnesses to get a defendant held to answer at a preliminary hearing.

“In some cases,” Fleming said in an e-mail, “preliminary hearings play a critical role in clarifying available evidence, testing the credibility of witnesses, and identifying issues with proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury at trial. This can result in lengthy preliminary hearings involving many witnesses.

“All district attorneys recognize this,” Fleming continued, “and commonly take this approach to preliminary hearings in their most serious cases. The lack of a ‘probable cause’ determination in a preliminary hearing after presentation of all available evidence is not a strategic failure, but rather an indication that currently available evidence would not support a guilty verdict at trial.”

Fleming said selecting certain witnesses to achieve a quick decision from the judge can backfire on the prosecution.

“(It) can endanger justice where ‘probable cause’ is uncertain given all the evidence,” Fleming noted. “The approach can rapidly lead to a not-guilty verdict at trial: In cases where a defendant does not waive the right to a speedy trial, the trial must proceed within 60 days after the preliminary hearing. The prosecution has an opportunity to re-file a case after failing to obtain a “probable cause” determination if further investigation brings new evidence to light; no such opportunity exists after a not-guilty verdict at trial, because people can’t be tried twice for the same crime.”

As for the future of Mack’s complaint, it is routine for city councils to reject such claims, which leaves the plaintiff free to file a lawsuit.

Kyle Zoellner also has filed a claim against Arcata, alleging false arrest and mistreatment.


UPDATE: The original headline to this story was changed after we received attorney Shelley Mack’s response to our questions.