LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Southern California college professor was charged Thursday with involuntary manslaughter and battery in the death of a Jewish protester during demonstrations over the Israel-Hamas war.
Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko said in a statement that both charges have special allegations that Loay Abdelfattah Alnaji, 50, personally inflicted “great bodily injury” on Paul Kessler, 69, during a confrontation at an event that started as a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Thousand Oaks, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles.
Involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of another person.
A man who answered the phone at a mobile number listed for Alnaji in public records said he did not want to comment. He did not give his name.
Kessler was among a group of pro-Israel demonstrators who showed up at the event that was advertised as a peaceful gathering to support Palestinians, officials said. Kessler died early Nov. 6 at a hospital, a day after the protest.
The district attorney did not explain what evidence they had to support those charges but planned a news conference for Friday.
Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff told reporters on Nov. 7 that deputies determined Kessler fell backward and struck his head on the ground but that investigators did not have a clear view from video footage of what they described as a physical altercation between the two men before the fall. He asked the public for help in providing additional footage.
Fryhoff at that time said investigators had not ruled out whether it was a hate crime.
The suspect stayed at the scene and told deputies he had called 911, Fryhoff said, adding that authorities later briefly detained him for questioning and searched his home in Moorpark.
Fryhoff said investigators had received conflicting information from witnesses on both sides about what took place, impairing witness credibility and making it difficult to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The department did not respond to questions Thursday from The Associated Press as to whether additional footage or other evidence prompted the arrest.
A short video clip surfaced showing Kessler on the ground, but there haven’t been any videos released showing the actual confrontation.
County Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Young said at the time that an autopsy found Kessler died from head injuries consistent with a fall. Young also said Kessler had injuries that could be consistent with a blow to the face but that it was unclear what caused his fall.
Before Alnaji was charged, Edward Obayashi, a former San Diego police officer and special prosecutor, said he was not surprised by the arrest on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter, the lowest level charge for a death. Additional charges, including for a hate crime, could still be considered, said Obayashi, who made one of the first arrests in the state under California’s hate crime law more than three decades ago.
“We have a very high profile incident, obviously, given the backdrop of what’s going on in the world,” he said. “So there is a lot of pressure on the authorities. The default position is making an arrest.”
Demonstrations have been widespread and tensions are escalating in the United States as the death toll rises in the Israel-Hamas war.
Alnaji, a professor of computer science at Moorpark College, had espoused pro-Palestinian views on his Facebook page and other social media accounts, many of which have since been taken down, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said in a statement that it was grateful for the work of sheriff’s investigators.
“This arrest shows that violence towards our Jewish community will not be tolerated,” the federation said.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, California, called it “a tragic situation that is indicative of a very unfortunate accident that no one intended to happen.”
“We now await the criminal justice system’s process and result and wish that truth and justice will prevail,” he said. “We reiterate our strong support for the right of First Amendment political debate, protest, and speech and our unequivocal rejection of all violence, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or incitement of hatred.”
Watson reported from San Diego.