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No evidence yet to support hate crime charge in death of pro-Israel protester

LOS ANGELES — California authorities said Friday they have not ruled out that a hate crime was committed in the death of a pro-Israel demonstrator following a confrontation with a college professor but so far the evidence only supports the charges of involuntary manslaughter and battery.

Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko said his office charged Loay Abdelfattah Alnaji, 50, with those two offenses in the death of Paul Kessler, 69, after reviewing over 600 pieces of evidence and interviewing more than 60 witnesses.

“We were not pre-committed to any specific outcome or even criminal culpability, and we never treated the fact that criminal charges would be a forgone conclusion,” he said.

The two men got into a physical altercation Nov. 5 during protests over the Israel-Hamas war, and Kessler fell back and hit his head on the ground, which caused the fatal injuries, authorities have said. He died the next day.

Kessler was among pro-Israel demonstrators who showed up at an event that started as a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Thousand Oaks, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles.

Nasarenko said investigators are working to determine whether the altercation was “accompanied by specific statements or words that demonstrate an antipathy, a hatred, towards a specific group.” He added: “We don’t have that at this point.”

Alnaji was arrested at 7:40 a.m. Thursday at his Moorpark home without incident, Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryoff said. A man who answered the phone Thursday at a number listed for Alnaji said he did not want to comment. He did not give his name.

He was scheduled to be arraigned later Thursday on the two charges, each of which is accompanied by a special allegation that he personally inflicted great bodily injury, which means he could be eligible for prison if convicted.

Authorities have said Kessler had non-fatal injuries to the left side of his face, but they have not specified what caused them or the fall.

They gave no details Friday as to what took place before the fall.

“In filing these charges we relied on new physical and forensic evidence as well as findings regarding the injuries to the left side of Paul Kessler’s face,” Nasarenko said.

“We were able to take video as well as digital footage, put it together and establish a clear sequence of events leading up to the confrontation,” he said. “These new pieces of evidence, as well as the technology that we utilized, has permitted our office to file these criminal charges.”

According to the sheriff, Alnaji stayed when Kessler was injured and told deputies he had called 911. Before his arrest he had been briefly detained for questioning and his home was searched.

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 district attorney said he met with Kessler’s family and that they wanted privacy. He said Kessler had worked in medical sales for decades, taught sales and marketing at colleges and was a pilot. He leaves behind his wife of 43 years and a son.

The district attorney thanked local Muslim and Jewish leaders for not inflaming the situation with tensions rising across the country over the war.

“Throughout the last 12 days, the community of Muslim and Jewish leaders have shown restraint,” he said. “Their comments have been measured. The respect for the criminal process has become well known. They trusted in law enforcement to arrive at this point.”

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Watson reported from San Diego.

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