The death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson at the gymnasium of Lowndes High School in Valdosta, in the U.S. on January 11, 2013, was as bizarre as the subsequent findings. Johnson was a three-sport athlete and dreamed of one day playing professional football.
Johnson was a Black boy who was found upside-down and rolled up in a school gym mat yet the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) ruled the death was an accident. Working with the theory that Johnson had fallen into the mat while looking for a shoe and died after being unable to get out.
With parents Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson as well as the family suspecting foul play given the hurried manner ‘positional asphyxia‘ was prescribed as cause of death just 24 hours after being found, the family reckoned their son’s death was not taken seriously because of his race. The family hired a private pathologist William R. Anderson on June 15. to conduct a second autopsy which concluded that Johnson died from traces of blunt force trauma to the right neck and soft tissues.
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Believing that Kendrick Johnson was murdered, the Johnson family retained the services of attorney Benjamin Crump to represent them. 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, however, Crump‘s application to the Georgia court to practice in Georgia representing Kendrick’s parents was not ruled on, which led him to withdraw from representing the Johnson family.
The Johnson family, together with the NAACP and other civil rights activists held a rally at the state capitol in Atlanta demanding action on a suit filed to open a coroner’s inquiry into his death delayed by the decision of the U.S. District Attorney review.
The Johnsons believed their son’s body had been moved, that is murdered somewhere else and dumped in the gymnasium. While Georgia state law dictates that the coroner be contacted immediately on the discovery of a body, Lowndes County Coroner, Bill Watson noted he was not notified until six hours later.
It didn’t help that Lowndes County Sheriff, Chris Prines and his investigators were all white, especially when as at 2013, racism was alive. Many reckoned had Kendrick Johnson been white, the seriousness to find how he died and the delivery of stern punishment will not have been in doubt.
Aside the sudden death of their son, another source of grief for the parents and family was when 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 prosecutor before the body was sent back to Valdosta,” according to the funeral home owner.
The Johnson family filed a complaint, with a regulatory body, against the funeral home operator.
“We have been let down again,” his father, Kenneth Johnson, told CNN. “When we buried Kendrick, we thought we were burying Kendrick, not half of Kendrick.”
Two entities had custody of Kendrick Johnson’s body after his death — the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which conducted the first autopsy in January; and the Harrington Funeral Home in Valdosta, which handled the teen’s embalming and burial.
Mother, Jacquelyn Johnson was aghast her son was treated “like he was a garbage can,” stuffed with old newsprint and department-store circulars.
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.
Former FBI agent and Atlanta private investigator Harold Copus upon seeing the death scene imagery told CNN: “I think this young man met with foul play.”
The public was horrified by the photo of Kendrick Johnson’s face extremely swollen at the morgue and rallied around the Johnsons in their quest for the truth.
The Johnson’s tried suing the funeral home for mishandling their son’s body but this case was dropped.
And when the Johnsons hoped for a coroner’s inquest, which would begin the process of reclassifying the cause of Kendrick Johnson’s death as non-accidental and reopening the investigation, the request was denied.
While surveillance footage showed Johnson entering the gym and training, a whole hour of footage from the gym was missing, right at the time which would have shed light on what happened that day. The development lent credence to the Johnsons’ believe that their son was murdered and then a grand cover-up was hatched between school authorities and law enforcement agents.
There was talk that Kendrick Johnson was likely murdered by two white brothers in the school as punishment for being intimate with the girlfriend of one.
In 2015, the Johnsons filed a $100 million civil lawsuit against 38 people. The Johnsons ultimately had to drop the suit. They were sued for more than $850,000 in attorney fees and more than one million in defamation charges.
A judge ordered them to pay close to $300,000 worth of lawyers’ fees to those they had accused with no evidence.
In June 2016, the Department of Justice announced no charges would be filed against anyone in relation to Kendrick Johnson’s death, considering there was “insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges.”
In June 2018, Kendrick Johnson’s body was exhumed for a second time and a third autopsy was performed. As of May 2019, the family has filed another suit against the funeral home. There have been no more updates since the case of Kendrick Johnson.