Kendrick Johnson was a Georgia high school student whose death under unusual circumstances attracted national attention.
Johnson's body was found at Lowndes High School in a rolled up wrestling mat, in the school's gymnasium, on January 11, 2013. A preliminary investigation and autopsy concluded that the death was accidental. Johnson's family was unwilling to accept the findings, and undertook their own investigation into Johnson's unusual death. A private pathologist, who conducted an autopsy on behalf of the family, concluded that Johnson died from blunt force trauma. On October 31, 2013, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia announced that the office would open a formal review into the death of Johnson. Johnson's family is unhappy with the pace of this review, as well.
Cause of death
Johnson was found headfirst in the center of a rolled up wrestling mat, in his high school gym, on January 11, 2013. An autopsy by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) stated that Johnson had died from positional asphyxia, and the case was ruled an accidental death by the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office. They hypothesized that Johnson had fallen into the mat while looking for a shoe and died after being unable to get out. Three students told investigators that it was common for some students to store their shoes behind or under the rolled up mats. Johnson was found wearing only socks. A student at the school said that he shared a pair of Adidas shoes with Johnson, and that after gym class Johnson would always "go to the mats, jump up and toss the shoes inside the middle of the hole." Johnson's body was found by students who had climbed up to the top of a cluster of mats, each of which stood nearly six feet tall and were three feet wide. Lt. Stryde Jones, who headed up the investigation for the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office stated: "We never had credible information that indicated this was anything other than an accident" The family of the teenager has questioned this hypothesis. An independent autopsy conducted by a private pathologist in the service of Johnson's parents came to a different conclusion, finding that his death was caused by blunt force trauma.
Activism by family
After the opinion of the private pathologist was released, Johnson's family stated that they believed Johnson had been killed. However, no suspect has been named, nor has a motive been suggested. In addition to the private pathologist, the family retained the services of attorney Benjamin Crump, known for taking on pro bono cases with civil rights implications. Crump is best known for his representation of the family of Trayvon Martin. The family filed a legal action to open a cononer's inquiry into the unusual death of Kendrick Johnson. When the judge in that case delayed a decision, pending the outcome of a U.S. District Attorney review, the family demanded that the governor of Georgia immediately authorize the inquiry, instead. The Johnson family, together with the NAACP and other civil rights activists, then held a “Who Killed K.J.?” rally at the state capitol in Atlanta. The governor's office released a statement indicating that they would await the report of the U.S. District Attorney. The Johnson family also filed a complaint against the funeral home operator who prepared Johnson's body. An investigation found that the funeral home operator did not violate any rules. Undeterred by that finding, the Johnson family filed a civil suit, seeking money damages, against the funeral home.
Review by FBI and U.S. District Attorney
On October 31, 2013, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia announced that the office would open a formal review into the death of Johnson. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is participating in that review process. In December 2013, Johnson's family and supporters held a rally of "more than 100 protestors" at the state capitol expressing displeasure with the pace of the federal review, and demanding that Georgia's governor immediately authorize a separate inquiry. The governor's office responded, saying that "Gov. Deal is aware that federal authorities, including the U.S. Attorney's Office and FBI, are looking into the case and we'll await their report to determine if further action is needed."
The independent autopsy found, among other things, that Johnson's body was stuffed with newspapers. The funeral home, which processed the body after it was turned over to them following the GBI autopsy, stated that they never received Johnson's organs from the coroner. Johnson's internal organs were said to have been "destroyed through natural process" and "discarded by the prosector before the body was sent back to Valdosta" according to the funeral home owner. That left a void, which the funeral home filled. The funeral home owner stated that it is standard practice to fill a void in this fashion, and that cotton or sawdust may also be employed for this purpose. Johnson's family filed a complaint, with a regulatory body, against the funeral home operator. A subsequent investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State's office found that the funeral home did not follow "best practice" and that other material was "more acceptable than newspaper". Nonetheless, the investigation cleared the funeral home of any wrongdoing. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State said that the investigation found that the funeral home "didn't violate any rules". The Johnson family subsequently filed a civil suit against the funeral home, seeking money damages.
In November 2013, 290 hours of surveillance tape from 35 cameras that covered the gym area was released to CNN following a court request. A forensic analyst Grant Federicks enlisted by CNN found that tapes from two cameras are missing an hour and five minutes of footage while another set is missing 2 hours and 10 minutes. The cameras were motion activated, and the mat area was believed to be outside the camera's range. Two cameras covered the entrance into the gym before Johnson's arrival, and would have shown who (if anyone) had entered before him. Attorneys for the Johnson family have expressed fears that the camera footage was edited as part of a "coverup". However, no evidence or motivation for a coverup have been presented by either the Johnson family or their attorneys.
- "Gym mat death: Attorneys call for surveillance video". CNN.com. 2013-10-11. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- "Kendrick Johnson Lowndes County High School gym mat death: Lawyers ask for surveillance video". Wptv.com. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- "Gym Mat Death Shocker: Body Stuffed With Newspaper | KTLA 5". Ktla.com. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- "Federal prosecutor will look into Kendrick Johnson case". CNN. Retrieved 31 October 2013.
- "Parents of Georgia teen found dead in gym mat rally for inquiry". NBCnews.com. Retrieved 11 December 2013.
- "Kendrick Johnson's parents still searching for answers to their son's death". Huffington Post. 01/05/2014. Retrieved 2014-01-19.
- "Who Killed K.J.?! Kendrick Johnson’s Family’s Quest For Answers Moves To Georgia Capitol". CBS local news. Retrieved 13 December 2013.
- "Kendrick Johnson family holds rally after filing complaint about missing organs". CNN.com. Retrieved 11 December 2013.
- "No Wrongdoing Detected in Kendrick Johnson Funeral Home Probe". 17 January 2014. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
- "Parents of Georgia teen found dead in gym mat sue funeral home". Fox News. 6 February 2014. Retrieved 6 February 2014.
- "Kendrick Johnson footage released; expert finds it 'highly suspicious'". CNN. Retrieved 2013-11-26.