(CN) – A college town on the redwood-hemmed fringe of California’s isolated Northern Coast will face claims its police department purposely slow-rolled a murder investigation because the victim was black.
U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers on Monday denied the city of Arcata’s motion to dismiss the claims of Charmaine Lawson, who accused the city’s police department of failing to properly investigate the stabbing death of her son David Lawson.
David Lawson was a sophomore at Humboldt State University in April 2017 when he attended an off-campus party in Arcata, population 17,000, with some friends. As he attempted to exit the house party, David Lawson became embroiled in a verbal altercation over a missing smartphone which quickly escalated and culminated in his death from multiple stab wounds.
Charmaine Lawson sued Arcata this past November, saying the city’s police department botched the investigation by failing to properly secure the crime scene, interview key witnesses, assign experienced police officers or provide life-saving medical care to her son while he was dying. She also claims the city violated her son’s constitutional rights to equal treatment by failing to treat the investigation into his death as seriously as white murder victims.
Former Arcata Police Chief Thomas Chapman, who has since resigned, responded personally to a murder scene when the victim was white, Lawson says, and claims his department assigned experienced homicide detectives to perform thorough if not exhaustive investigations when non-black murder victims were involved.
Judge Rogers said the claims were adequately pleaded under the 14th Amendment meaning the case will proceed to the summary judgement phase.
“These claims suffice to allege that defendants acted with an intent or purpose to discriminate,” Rogers wrote in a 12-page order.
The main suspect in the case, 24-year-old Kyle Zoellner of nearby McKinleyville, was arrested on the night of the murder, but a Humboldt County judge found insufficient evidence to try him for murder in May 2017.
Witnesses saw David Lawson and Zoellner fighting after their girlfriends and friends got in an argument over a missing cellphone. Lawson had reportedly placed Zoellner in a headlock before a witness tried to break up the fight and immediately noticed Lawson bleeding from stab wounds. Police later found a 10-inch Henkel knife near the crime scene that was identified as the murder weapon.
However, Charmaine Lawson says the knife was improperly collected and stored since the detective who responded to the scene could not recall if he used a glove when he picked it up, according to the ruling’s summary of the plaintiff’s claims.
She says the two officers who responded lied when they claimed they attempted to perform life-saving techniques on David Lawson has he lay bleeding on the ground.
Furthermore, their statements that they interviewed 30% of the partygoers were also a lie, Charmaine Lawson says, claiming they failed to interview a single witness the night of the murder.
In October 2017, former FBI agent Thomas Parker agreed to help investigate the murder on a pro bono basis. According to the lawsuit, Parker went to the catering kitchen where Zoellner had worked and found knives matching the murder weapon but police never obtained or analyzed those knives – despite Parker’s recommendation to do so. The catering company has since shut down, “destroying any opportunity to collect those knives,” according to the complaint.
Parker worked 130 hours on the case and delivered a written report recommending additional tests on the knives and “what appeared to be a bloody knife swipe” on the suspect’s pants. But Charmaine Lawson says the former police chief never followed up on those recommendations.
Frustrated with the department’s reluctance to act on his suggestions, Parker resigned from his contract with the city in early April 2018. The next morning, Chapman also resigned as chief of police, according to the original complaint.
Before resigning, Chapman said he had held “weekly meetings” to update other local police departments on the investigation’s progress. In reality, Chapman held only one meeting with other police departments and repeatedly refused offers of assistance, according to the suit.
“Defendant Chapman intentionally misled plaintiff about the investigation of her son’s murder by representing that outside agencies were assisting the APD with their investigation,” Charmaine Lawson says in her complaint.
She also claims that after she started openly criticizing the police department at city meetings and in local media, the police retaliated against her by effectively halting their investigation. Furthermore, the department has continued to deny her access to autopsy and reports related to the investigation, she says.
Defendants include Chapman, Lt. Tod Dockweiler, Det. Eric Losey, Officer Krystle Armino, and City Manager Karen Diemer. A city spokesperson declined to comment on the ruling, though the police department says the murder investigation remains active and ongoing.
Judge Rogers did grant the city’s claims to dismiss four state claims – including gross negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy – noting that California law grants immunity to public employees when they are performing within their scope of their duties. Charmaine Lawson had argued an exception should be made in her case, but Rogers said there was no example of malice necessary to withdraw the immunity for the named employees.