The man accused of causing the death of pro-Israel demonstrator Paul Kessler did not intend to kill him, according to the Ventura County District Attorney, who addressed the filing of charges on Friday.
Kessler, 69, who is Jewish, died after suffering a head injury in an altercation at dueling demonstrations surrounding the Israel-Hamas war in Thousand Oaks on Nov. 5.
Loay Abdelfattah Alnaji, 50, a professor at Moorpark College, was arrested Thursday and charged with involuntary manslaughter and battery causing serious bodily injury. He pleaded not guilty at his first court appearance on Friday.
“We took this case seriously and we investigated and charged it thoroughly,” said Ventura County D.A. Erik Nasarenko at a news conference. “We approached it with an open mind. We were not pre-committed to a specific outcome or even criminal culpability, and we never treated the fact that criminal charges would be a foregone conclusion.”
The altercation occurred as pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators squared off at the busy intersection of Westlake and Thousands Oaks boulevards.
The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles said Kessler was “struck in the head by a megaphone wielded by a pro-Palestinian protestor,” leading some members of the community to assume this was a hate crime attack and calling for murder charges.
The medical examiner said Kessler’s fatal injury occurred when he fell and hit his head on the pavement. Video from the scene showed him lying on the ground while being tended to by several people, including at least one pro-Palestinian demonstrator.
He was transported to a hospital where he died the next day.
Alnaji’s defense attorney Ron Bamieh doesn’t dispute that an altercation occurred but insists his client’s actions didn’t cause the fatal injury.
“While he may have been pushed or hit by a megaphone, that’s not what caused his fall,” Bamieh told reporters. “It’s clear that when he fell my client was six to eight feet away from him.”
Bamieh also implied that Kessler may have instigated trouble at the rally.
“We know that Mr. Kessler had attended these rallies before and had been very abusive in the past,” he claimed.
Prosecutors say they reviewed over 600 pieces of evidence including photos and video from the demonstrations, and interviewed more than 60 witnesses. They moved forward with charges against Alnaji based on an injury Kessler sustained to his face, the D.A. said.
“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,” Nasarenko said. “We did not file [a murder charge] because there was no intent on the defendant’s part to commit one.”
Nasarenko, however, left open the possibility of additional charges if new evidence materializes. Authorities continue to solicit videos and witness accounts of the altercation.