By Jorge Garcia and Steve Gorman
THOUSAND OAKS, California (Reuters) – A California man pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and battery charges on Friday in the death of a Jewish man who fell to the ground and hit his head during an altercation between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators earlier this month.
The suspect, Loay Alnaji, 50, was arraigned in Ventura County Superior Court the day after his arrest at his home in Moorpark, California, a community roughly adjacent to the scene of the protests on Nov. 5 and about 45 miles (72 km) northwest of Los Angeles.
He was charged on Friday with one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of battery causing serious bodily injury, felonies each punishable by up to four years in prison if he were convicted.
He is accused of engaging in a physical confrontation with the victim, Paul Kessler, 69, while the two men were taking part in opposing pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel street rallies in Thousand Oaks.
Kessler died the next day from what an autopsy determined was blunt force head trauma he sustained when he fell. The medical examiner also found non-lethal bruising to the left side of his face, an indication that he may have been struck before the fall.
Alnaji pleaded not guilty to the charges and remained jailed on a $50,000 bond, the prosecutor’s office said.
“In filing these charges, we relied on new physical and forensic evidence as well as findings regarding the injuries to the left side” of Kessler’s face, Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko said at a Friday news conference.
Nasarenko also said investigators had reviewed more than 60 witness statements and more than 600 pieces of evidence, including video clips that when pieced together offered a “clear sequence of events leading up to the confrontation.”
But he offered no details of what that sequence was found to entail. Neither murder nor voluntary manslaughter charges were filed because prosecutors found no evidence of malice aforethought or intent to kill, the D.A. said. He also said evidence did not support hate-crime charges.
Last week, Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said Alnaji, then a suspect whose name had not been publicly released, had called emergency-911 to report the fall and waited at the scene to answer investigators’ questions.
Kessler was conscious when taken to a hospital and spoke with investigators while there, the sheriff said. He declined to say what Kessler told officers.
Witnesses had provided conflicting accounts about who was the aggressor in the incident, the sheriff said last week.
Emotions have run high at street protests that have been organized in cities across the U.S. and around the world over the military conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
The dual protests in Thousand Oaks drew about 100 people from each side, Fryhoff said.
(This story has been refiled to fix a typo in paragraph 9)
(Reporting by Jorge Garcia in Thousand Oaks, California; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Kim Coghill)