Death of Kendrick Johnson
Johnson, circa 2012
|Date||January 11, 2013|
|Location||Gymnasium, Lowndes High School, Valdosta, Georgia, USA|
1st autopsy: accidental, positional asphyxia.
2nd autopsy: blunt force trauma.
|Inquiries||U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia
Federal Bureau of Investigation
|Litigation||Wrongful death, Kendrick Johnson's family vs. Lowndes County Board of Education and school officials.
Conspiracy to cover up murder, Kendrick Johnson's family vs. 38 respondents.
On January 11, 2013, Kendrick Johnson's body was found in a rolled up wrestling mat in the gymnasium of Lowndes High School, Valdosta, Georgia, USA, where he was a student. A preliminary investigation and autopsy concluded that the death was accidental. Johnson's family had a private pathologist conduct another autopsy which 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 Johnson's death. Johnson's family is dissatisfied with the pace of this review, as well.
Johnson was found headfirst in the center of a rolled up wrestling mat, in his high school gym, on January 11, 2013. The body was discovered by students who had climbed up to the top of a cluster of mats, each of which stood nearly six feet tall and three feet wide. 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 not wearing shoes when he was found. 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." 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." Johnson's family 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.
After the opinion of the private pathologist was released, Johnson's family stated that they believed Johnson had been killed. The family retained the services of attorney Benjamin Crump. 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.
The family filed a legal action to open a coroner'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 Sheriff's department, via a public records request, has confirmed details of additional interviews conducted between November 24 - December 15, 2014 to CNN.
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, both the president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County chapter of the SCLC, and the lead investigator for that chapter, who is also the past president of the local chapter of the NAACP, have stated that they believe the attorneys for the Johnsons have "not been entirely truthful in their statements" and that there is no coverup in this case.
The family of Kendrick Johnson filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Lowndes County Board of Education, its superintendent and the high school principal. The suit alleges that Johnson "was violently assaulted, severely injured, suffered great physical pain and mental anguish, and subjected to insult and loss of life" on January 10, 2013. While the lawsuit does not name the person or persons allegedly involved in the January 10th event, nor identify the race of alleged perpetrators, it implies a race-based dimension to the hypothetical assault. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants were negligent, and violated Johnson's constitutional right to equal protection based on race. It alleges that the defendants ignored reports that, previously, Johnson was repeatedly attacked and harassed by a white student. Kendrick was allegedly attacked on a bus trip earlier in the year as well as on another occasion by this student. According to the lawsuit, the other student "had a history of provoking and attacking" Johnson at school. Johnson was "victimized" again "in the presence of the coaching staff and employees" of the school again after his mother complained about the attacks, the suit said. The suit also alleges that school officials failed to "properly monitor the activities of students throughout all areas" of the campus and to "maintain a properly functioning video surveillance system."
In August 2014, the parents of two Lowndes County High School students filed a $5 million lawsuit against Ebony Magazine after the magazine published a series of articles naming two students as possible suspects in the death. The magazine used pseudonyms, but was otherwise accurate in descriptions of the boys, including the fact that their father was an FBI agent. The article used as a source an anonymous email to the sheriff's office alleging that the younger of the two brothers killed Johnson after learning that Johnson had sex with the brother's girlfriend. Rick and Karen Bell assert that their sons were not involved in the crime, are not considered suspects, and have been harassed as a result of the publication.
In January 2015, Kendrick Johnson's family filed a $100 million civil lawsuit in the Superior Court of DeKalb County against 38 individuals. Respondents include three of Johnson's classmates (two or three respondents are unnamed) and local, state, and federal officials: the school superintendent of Lowndes County, the Valdosta-Lowndes crime lab, the police chief of Valdosta, many sheriff's deputies, the city of Valdosta, the state medical examiner, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and its five agents, and an FBI agent. The lawsuit alleges that the FBI agent ordered his two sons and a classmate to attack Johnson. Kendrick Johnson's family allege that his death was a murder, and accuse the respondents of a conspiracy to cover up the homicide. Jim Elliott, the Lowndes County Attorney, stated that the allegations are "unfounded" and "baseless", and that any response would be made in court. A lawsuit could not be brought in Lowndes County, when all local Superior Court judges recused themselves from presiding over the case, because of their close proximity to the accused. For that reason, Chief Judge Harry J. Altman stated that it was inappropriate for these judges to preside over the case. Shortly before the lawsuit was filed, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, Michael J. Moore, said in a statement that a federal investigation is still open, and that "the investigation has proven more complicated and taken longer than originally anticipated."
- "Gym mat death: Attorneys call for surveillance video". CNN.com. October 11, 2013. Retrieved October 15, 2013.
- "Kendrick Johnson Lowndes County High School gym mat death: Lawyers ask for surveillance video". Wptv.com. Retrieved October 15, 2013.
- "Gym Mat Death Shocker: Body Stuffed With Newspaper | KTLA 5". Ktla.com. Retrieved October 15, 2013.
- "Federal prosecutor will look into Kendrick Johnson case". CNN. Retrieved October 31, 2013.
- "Parents of Georgia teen found dead in gym mat rally for inquiry". NBCnews.com. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
- "Kendrick Johnson's parents still searching for answers to their son's death". Huffington Post. May 1, 2014. Retrieved January 19, 2014.
- "Who Killed K.J.?! Kendrick Johnson’s Family’s Quest For Answers Moves To Georgia Capitol". CBS local news. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
- Victor Blackwell (28 December 2014). "Local, federal investigations into gym mat death continue". CNN.com. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- "Kendrick Johnson family holds rally after filing complaint about missing organs". CNN.com. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
- "Parents of Georgia teen found dead in gym mat sue funeral home". Fox News. February 6, 2014. Retrieved February 6, 2014.
- "No Wrongdoing Detected in Kendrick Johnson Funeral Home Probe". January 17, 2014. Retrieved January 20, 2014.
- "Kendrick Johnson footage released; expert finds it 'highly suspicious'". CNN. Retrieved November 26, 2013.
- Adam Floyd (October 31, 2013). "Rose, Touchton believe no coverup in Johnson case". Valdosta Daily Times.
- Duke, Alan (July 28, 2014). "Georgia school officials sued in Kendrick Johnson's gym death". CNN.
- Floyd, Adam (August 27, 2014). "FBI agent, wife file $5 million defamation suit against Ebony.com and crime writer for KJ stories". Valdosta Daily Times.
- Johnson, M. Alex (2015-01-15). "Parents File $100 Million Suit in Gym-Mat Death of Georgia Teen Kendrick Johnson". NBC News. Retrieved 2015-01-16.