60 statements, 600 pieces of evidence: Manslaughter charges in death of Jewish protester

Prosecutors on Friday laid out the voluminous evidence they used to back charges of involuntary manslaughter and battery against a Moorpark professor in the death of a Jewish protester.

Despite the clearest description yet of how felony charges came to be filed against Loay Abdelfattah Alnaji, 50, however, Ventura County Dist. Atty Erik Nasarenko and Sheriff Jim Fryhoff did not make public a specific timeline of what happened that led to the death of 69-year-old Paul Kessler.

"Our prosecutors have reviewed over 600 pieces of evidence and the statements of over 60 witnesses,” Nasarenko said, noting that the evidence provides a "clear sequence of events leading up to the confrontation."

Alnaji and Kessler clashed at a protest related to the Israel-Hamas war, during which demonstrators on both sides met at an intersection in Thousand Oaks.

Alnaji was protesting with others at a Free Palestine rally, and Kessler was counterprotesting in support of Israel.

Jonathan Oswaks said he was protesting alongside Kessler when a demonstrator from the Free Palestine group came behind him with a megaphone and screamed close to his ear.

“I turned around, and I said, ‘Get that f— thing out of my ear. Back up,’” Oswaks, 69, previously told The Times. In response, the protester offered him water, Oswaks said.

He said he later saw the same protester — now identified as Alnaji — hit someone with his megaphone on the opposite corner, where Kessler had been carrying an Israeli flag.

Prosecutors said Friday that key pieces of evidence that made the case were new findings "regarding the injuries to the left side of Paul Kessler's face," Nasarenko said, although he did not specify whether those injuries were caused by a blow from Alnaji.

Nasarenko declined to answer when asked whether authorities believe Alnaji struck Kessler with a megaphone.

Read more: Moorpark professor arrested in death of Jewish protester Paul Kessler in Thousand Oaks

However, Alnaji's attorney, Ron S. Bamieh, said Friday that Kessler, who had been at prior protests, was the aggressor in the confrontation.

“He was yelling and screaming at people and got in the face of many of the protesters," Bamieh said of Kessler. "He got in the face of my client, and he put his phone in the face of my client, and my client would push the phone away.”

Nasarenko said video and digital images were instrumental in bringing charges against Alnaji, although Bamieh said video shows Alnaji was 6 to 8 feet away when Kessler fell.

“It looks like an accident. He tripped on that sign or something,” Bamieh said.

The district attorney's office is not currently pursuing hate crime charges, though it is still investigating and executing search warrants that could lead to those charges in the future, the prosecutor said.

"We cannot at this time meet the elements of a hate crime," he said.

Nasarenko specified that there was no evidence to suggest that Alnaji attended the protest with the intent to kill anyone.

"We received no evidence, no statements, no information whatsoever that the defendant arrived at that intersection … with the intent to kill, harm or injure anyone," the district attorney said.

Oswaks was disappointed that hate charges were not filed. “We endured hate rhetoric,” he said Friday, adding that one pro-Palestinian supporter rubbed Kessler’s blood into a sign of hate against Israel. “If this isn’t the definition of a hate crime, I don’t know what is.”

Read more: 'He has become a symbol': Paul Kessler mourned as questions about his death haunt community

Conflicting statements from witnesses on both sides delayed the arrest of Alnaji, who was immediately a suspect in Kessler's death.

While details of their encounter remain scarce and neither the Ventura County district attorney's office nor the sheriff's office have provided a full description of what they believe occurred, the charges allege that Alnaji "did unlawfully kill a human being."

The charges also specify that the death was caused "without malice," according to the felony complaint filed Friday.

Alnaji appeared Friday afternoon in Ventura County Superior Court, where Bamieh entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. He had been held in jail in lieu of $1 million bail, but his attorney argued he was not a flight risk or a danger to the community and asked bail to be lowered.

Judge Kevin DeNoce set bail at $50,000 and ordered Alnaji to surrender both his U.S. and Jordanian passports.

Bamieh said the evidence will show that Kessler accosted Alnaji, adding, "whether that justifies swatting his phone away or not, that is up to a jury to decide. But the difference between swatting something away — which is battery — and involuntary manslaughter is a big deal.”

A preliminary hearing was set for Dec. 4.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.