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 discovered inside a rolled up wrestling mat in the gymnasium of Lowndes High School in Valdosta, in the U.S. state of Georgia, where he was a student. A preliminary investigation and autopsy concluded that the death was accidental. Johnson's family had a private pathologist conduct a second 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 his office would open a formal review into Johnson's death. On June 20, 2016, the US DOJ announced that it would not be filing any criminal charges related to Johnson's death.  Kendrick Johnson's family filed a $100 million civil lawsuit against 38 individuals. The lawsuit alleged that Johnson's death was a murder and accused the respondents of a conspiracy to cover up the homicide. That lawsuit was subsequently withdrawn. A judge ordered the Johnsons and their attorney to pay more than $292,000 in legal fees to the defendants.
Johnson was found headfirst in the center of a rolled up wrestling mat, in his high school gym, on January 11, 2013. His 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 questioned this hypothesis. Unsatisfied with the result of the investigation, Johnson's family hired an independent autopsy conducted by a private pathologist, who came to a different conclusion, finding that his death was caused by blunt force trauma.
Subsequent events and legal actions
After the opinion of the private pathologist was released, Johnson's family stated that they believed Johnson had been murdered. 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. Benjamin Crump's application to the Georgia court to practice in Georgia representing Kendrick's parents was not ruled on, and he withdrew from representing the Johnson family and is no longer participating in the case.
Johnson's family filed a legal action to open a coroner's inquiry into his death. When the judge in that case delayed a decision, pending the outcome of the 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 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 independent autopsy found, among other things, that Johnson's body was stuffed with newspapers. The funeral home that processed the body following the GBI's 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 enlisted by CNN found that tapes from two cameras are missing an hour and five minutes of footage, while another set was missing two hours and ten minutes of footage. 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 showed a student entering the gym before Kendrick Johnson. There were also some students standing near the entrance to the gym.
Attorneys for the Johnson family have expressed fears that the camera footage was edited as part of a "cover-up". However, both the president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County chapter of the SCLC and the former lead investigator for that chapter have stated that they believe the attorneys for the Johnsons have "not been entirely truthful in their statements" and that there is no cover-up 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 alleged 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 did not name the person or persons allegedly involved in the January 10 event, nor identify the race of alleged perpetrators, it implies a race-based dimension to the hypothetical assault. The lawsuit alleged that the defendants were negligent and violated Johnson's constitutional right to equal protection based on race. It alleged that the defendants ignored reports that, previously, Johnson was repeatedly attacked and harassed by a white student. Kendrick was attacked on a bus trip 14 months prior. 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 alleged 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 Brian and Brandon Bell 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 alleged that the FBI agent ordered his two sons and a classmate to attack Johnson. Kendrick Johnson's family alleged that his death was a murder and accused 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. All local Superior Court judges recused themselves from presiding over the case preventing the lawsuit from being filed and heard in Lowndes County. The judges' reason was 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 was still open and that "the investigation has proven more complicated and taken longer than originally anticipated." U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, Michael J. Moore has since resigned. After Michael Moore resigned, the case was transferred to the Northern District of Ohio under the leadership of Steven Dettlebach. Shortly after receiving the Kendrick Johnson case, U.S. attorney Steven Dettlebach resigned. Despite these resignations, the Department of Justice investigation continued, according to Department of Justice spokesman Michael Tobin.
In November 2015, the DOJ filed a motion in the civil case to intervene and stay the case. The U.S. Attorney said allowing evidence discovery in the civil suit to continue would have a “chilling effect” on the federal investigation, which had expanded into investigating possible obstruction and grand jury witness tampering. After the DOJ's motion was denied, Jackie and Kenneth Johnson dismissed their own wrongful death lawsuit, saying that they hoped to refile it after the conclusion of the DOJ's investigation. Jackie and Kenneth Johnson were subsequently sued for more than $850,000 in attorney fees and $1,000,000 in defamation damages.
On June 20, 2016, the US DOJ announced that they would not be filing any criminal charges related to Johnson's death, stating "After extensive investigation into this tragic event, federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson's civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime."
On August 10, 2017, a judge ruled that Johnson's family and their attorney must pay more than $292,000 in legal fees to the dozens of people they accused of foul play in a lawsuit that they previously dropped.
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