California man pleads not guilty to manslaughter in death of Jewish protester

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Prosecutors charge California man over death of Jewish protester
by Jorge Garcia and Steve Gorman

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 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 close to the scene of the protests on Nov. 5 and about 45 miles (70 km) northwest of Los Angeles.

Elsewhere on Friday, gun violence erupted outside a mosque in Rhode Island, and thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched through New York City, some scuffling with police and blocking traffic and passenger train lines in Manhattan.

Alnaji 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.

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 told a Friday press conference.

Nasarenko said investigators had reviewed more than 60 witness statements and more than 600 pieces of evidence, including video clips that together offered a “clear sequence of events leading up to the confrontation.”

He offered no details of that sequence. Neither murder nor voluntary manslaughter charges were filed because prosecutors found no evidence of malice aforethought or intent to kill, the DA 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 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.

American Jewish and Muslim leaders have reported increased incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia, respectively, since the latest wave of Arab-Israeli bloodshed erupted with Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

In Rhode Island’s capital, Providence, a man setting up a table to sell goods outside a mosque was shot and wounded on Friday by an assailant who, according to Imam Abdul-Latif Sackor, appeared to have been lurking across the street for about 20 minutes before a prayer service.

Sackor said he believed the victim was singled out because of his connection to the mosque. Police said they were investigating and that the shooter remained at large.

In Manhattan thousands of protesters took to the streets on Friday, blocking traffic around Penn Station and Times Square, chanting demands for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Police officers and demonstrators scuffled at times, and scores of activists crowded onto Amtrak train platforms inside Penn Station.

(Reporting by Jorge Garcia in Thousand Oaks, California; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Kim Coghill and William Mallard)

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