A San Francisco jury has ordered the City of Arcata and Arcata Police Department detective Eric Losey to pay Kyle Zoellner more than $750,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for maliciously fabricating evidence that led to Zoellner’s arrest as the primary suspect in the stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson in 2017. The jury also called for Losey to issue a public apology “to all the victims and families,” to state the nature of his reporting inaccuracy and “what he learned about the importance of accurate reporting.” 

Zoellner, at the time of his arrest.

However, the jury’s decision could be overturned. The final legal determination will be made by presiding U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley in the coming weeks.

To be clear, this week’s civil proceedings are not focused on whether or not Zoellner was involved in Lawson’s death. The civil trial was brought forth to determine whether or not Losey had acted maliciously to frame Zoellner.

Zoellner’s attorney Elizabeth Zareh contends that Losey acted with “malice” and “reckless disregard of [Zoellner’s] rights” following his arrest. “There is no doubt that APD’s investigation was bias[ed] toward Kyle Zoellner to frame him,” Zareh wrote in an email to the Outpost. “They chose to ignore significant and important exculpatory evidence and excluded [it from] their investigation. …It appears they framed [Zoellner] to cover their incompetence.”

Patrick Moriarty, an attorney representing Losey and the City of Arcata, argued that APD detectives had no unlawful purpose in arresting Zoellner, “and the decision to charge him with the murder of [Lawson] was based on evidence.” Moriarity maintains that there was ample probable cause to charge Zoellner.

“The City [of Arcata] is confident that the trial judge will set aside Mr. Zoellner’s verdict,” Moriarty wrote in an email to the Outpost. “At trial, Mr. Zoellner was required to prove that [Losey] lacked probable cause to have Zoellner charged. The trial record confirms that the plaintiff did not satisfy his burden. If the Court decides probable cause existed, it will set aside the verdict and enter judgment in favor of [Losey].”

The civil rights action initially came before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in 2018, after Zoellner filed suit against the city of Arcata, Losey and several other APD employees and people in City Hall, accusing them of unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution, defamation and other civil rights violations 

In March of this year, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen dismissed the bulk of Zoellner’s suit against the City of Arcata and all its employees, with the exception of Losey.

“The Court holds that all of the defendants, except for Det. Losey, are entitled to summary judgment on the malicious prosecution claim because, even if probable cause was lacking (a reasonable jury could so find), no reasonable jury could find that they acted with malice based on the record presented,” Chen wrote in his March 1 Order on Motion for Summary Judgment

Chen explained that the situation is different for Losey due to a “genuine dispute of material facts on malice,” because he included false information in his police report, stating that an eyewitness had identified Zoellner as the assailant in the killing of Lawson when the witness had not identified Zoellner by name.

Losey admitted that he was mistaken and told the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office about the error before the preliminary hearing began on May 1, 2017. The DA’s Office nevertheless decided to proceed with the hearing.

Chen asserted that “a reasonable jury could infer that Det. Losey deliberately lied because of the significance of the false information” as no other witnesses from the party had claimed to see Zoeller stab Lawson “or even with a knife at all.”

“Even though Det. Losey included false evidence in his report, that does not necessarily mean probable cause was lacking to keep Mr. Zoellner in custody,” Chen continued. “[Zoellner] must show that the officer who applied for the arrest warrant ‘deliberately or recklessly made false statements or omissions that were material to the finding of probable cause’ – i.e., that ‘the magistrate would not have issued the warrant with false information redacted, or omitted information restored.’”

Chen concluded that only one claim – malicious prosecution by Losey – could proceed to trial. That’s where we’re at now.

A U.S. District Court judge is expected to make the final legal determination in the civil case in the next two weeks. If the judge determines probable cause existed at the time of Zoellner’s arrest, the court will set aside the verdict and enter a judgment in favor of Losey. If that were to happen, Zoellner would not receive any of the $750,000 ordered by the jury.

Could the impending judgment impact future investigations into the unsolved killing of Lawson? Humboldt District Attorney Maggie Fleming told the Outpost that “every review of the evidence in a particular criminal case – including those that occur during civil trials – has the potential to inform and impact ongoing investigations.”

“[However], I don’t anticipate that the outcome of any civil case will affect the commitment of law enforcement agencies  – including the Arcata Police Department – to continue investigations of unresolved homicide cases within their jurisdictions,” Fleming added.


[Note: This post has been updated to include a comment from Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming.]