Eight years after the body of Kendrick Johnson was found in a rolled-up gym mat at a high school in Georgia, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office has announced it is reopening the case after authorities initially ruled the 17-year-old’s cause of death as accidental.
Johnson’s parents have always been adamant their son was murdered by his schoolmates though investigators concluded his cause of death was positional asphyxia after he allegedly fell and got stuck in the mat while he was attempting to recover a pair of sneakers.
His case was closed almost five years ago after federal investigators determined there was “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,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Johnson’s parents, however, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2015, pointing fingers at two brothers, Brian and Branden Bell, and their friend, Ryan Hall, as the perpetrators behind their son’s death. The Johnsons alleged Lowndes County Superintendent of Schools Wes Taylor and former Sheriff Chris Prine had swept the case under the rug on the orders of the Bell brothers’ father, a former FBI agent. A judge, however, quashed their suit, writing in the ruling: “Their testimony shows they had no evidence.”
Undeterred, Johnson’s father and Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk wrote a letter to the Justice Department in 2019 requesting documents related to the case. Though they were initially denied, federal officials finally handed over 17 boxes of materials on the case to them last week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
“I’m treating it like it’s a brand new case,” Paulk told the news outlet. “There’s still a lot of questions people want answered.”
The first autopsy performed on Johnson by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) concluded he died of “positional asphyxia” and his death was ruled as accidental by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office. His parents, however, felt he was killed. The family subsequently hired private pathologist William R. Anderson to conduct a second autopsy on Johnson on June 15, 2013. Anderson concluded Johnson died from “unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma” to the right neck and soft tissues, CNN reported.
The independent autopsy performed by Anderson also found that Johnson’s brain, heart, lungs, liver and other organs were gone, while his parents also discovered his body was stuffed with newspapers prior to his burial. The funeral home that took over Johnson’s remains from the GBI claimed they did not receive his organs. The funeral homeowner said Johnson’s organs “were destroyed through natural process” as a result of his body positioning at the time of his death and “discarded by the prosecutor before the body was sent back to Valdosta.”
A third autopsy was conducted on Johnson after his body was exhumed for the second time in June 2018, with the results concluding he died from non-accidental blunt force trauma between his neck and abdomen, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.