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UNSOLVED: The Suspicious Death of Kendrick Johnson

The tale of this teenager's death has so many odd facets that closure may never be found.

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

On January 11th, 2013, 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was found dead in Valdosta, Georgia. His body was discovered in the gymnasium of Lowndes High School, inside of a rolled up mat that was standing vertical. It was a bizarre circumstance, certainly. One that the authorities and Johnson's family couldn't see eye to eye on. But was this young man's death a freak accident, or cold-blooded murder?

Once Johnson's body was discovered, an investigation was immediately launched. His body was nestled in the wrestling mat with his head facing downward, feet toward the ceiling. These mats had a height of nearly six feet and a width of three feet—large enough to pose a danger in the wrong conditions, for sure. It was Johnson's fellow student's who found him dead after they themselves had climbed atop the cluster mats.

The autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded that Johnson's cause of death was positional asphyxia—suffocation as a result of being in a position where one can't breath, either because their nose or mouth are blocked, their chest can't expand, or otherwise. As such, the Lowndes county investigators ruled Johnson's death to be accidental. The hypothesis presented by the authorities was that, on the day of his death, Johnson was looking for a shoe when he fell into the mat, dying after being unable to get out.

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This theory was corroborated by several students at the high school, who informed the police that it was typical for students to keep their shoes behind and under the rolled up mats. One student in particular said that he and Johnson shared a pair of Adidas, and at the end of gym class Johnson would always toss the shoes into the hole in the middle of the mat. Adding more credibility to the story, Johnson was found without shoes on his feet.

Johnson's family, on the other hand, didn't accept this theory so easily. Displeased with the official investigation, the family took matters into their own hands and hired William R. Anderson of Forensic Dimensions to conduct an independent autopsy later that year in June. Contradicting the police findings, Anderson concluded that Johnson had sustained blunt force trauma to the right of his neck and soft tissues. He concluded that this was enough to imply Johnson's death was no accident.

Related: Tennessee's Body Farm: A Journey to the Forensic Land of the Dead

Following the opinion provided by the private pathologist, Johnson's family came out publicly with the belief that Kendrick had been murdered. U.S. Attorney Michael J. Moore announced on October 31st of 2013 that his office was opening a formal review into Johnson's suspicious death. 

Johnson's family filed a legal action to open a coroner's inquest. The decision in that case was delayed, pending the U.S. Attorney's review. In response, the Johnson family turned to Georgia governor Nathan Deal to demand he authorize an immediate inquiry. Even after a rally organized by the family, the NAACP, and other civil rights activists, Deal released a statement stating that the inquiry would wait until the U.S. Attorney filed a report.

November of 2013 saw the release of 290 hours of surveillance footage collected from 35 cameras aimed toward the high school gym area. The tapes were released to CNN following a court request, and with the help of a forensic analyst, it was discovered that footage was missing from two different cameras that covered a time period of one hour and five minutes. Two more cameras were found missing footage that lasted two hours and 10 minutes. This lapse was allegedly the result of out of sync camera systems and un-triggered motion-activated functions. The area in which Johnson's body was found happened to be out of range of all of the surveillance cameras.

Refusing to believe these gaps in surveillance were unfortunate coincidences, attorneys with the Johnson family suggested the camera footage could have been edited as part of a cover-up. However, doubt was cast on this theory by an analysis of the camera systems presented by the Valdosta Daily Times.

Since Kendrick Johnson's death, his family has taken several different legal actions. One lawsuit was a case for wrongful death against the Lowndes County Board of Education, its superintendent, and the high school principal. While the lawsuit stayed away from naming a perpetrator in Johnson's alleged murder, it implied that this hypothetical assault may have had racial motivations.

The lawsuit claimed that the defendants in the case had been negligent in honoring Johnson's constitutional right to equal protection based on race. It further alleged that the defendants had ignored previous reports from Johnson that he had been repeatedly harassed and attacked by a white student—including an attack from the previous year that took place during a bus trip.

Gaining specificity, the lawsuit went on to allege that another student had routinely attacked and provoked Johnson on school premises, and even within the presence of the coaching staff and employees. The suit claimed, too, that the school officials were responsible for the fact that the activities of students were not properly monitored within all areas of the campus.

Though not filed by the Johnson family, a lawsuit was filed against Ebony magazine in August of 2014, following their publication of a series of articles which names two students as potential suspects in the death of Kendrick Johnson. While the magazine used pseudonyms for the two boys, the descriptions of them were otherwise wholly accurate, including the fact that they were the sons of an FBI agent. 

One of the magazine's sources was an anonymous email to the sheriff's office. In the lawsuit, which asked for $5 million, the family of the accused asserted that not only were their sons innocent, they were not suspected by law officials, and had received significant harassment since the publication of the articles.

Johnson's family filed another lawsuit in January of 2015, requesting $100 million in a civil lawsuit against 38 individuals in an alleged conspiracy to cover up Kendrick Johnson's alleged homicide. The individuals named in the lawsuit include three of Johnson's classmates, as well as local, state, and federal officials, including the school superintendent of Lowndes County, the Valdosta-Lowndes crime lab, Valdosta's police chief, several sheriff's deputies, the city of Valdosta itself, the state medical examiner, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation along with five of its agents, and one FBI agent.

The lawsuit claimed that the FBI agent ordered his two sons and an additional classmate to attack Johnson, resulting in his murder, and that the respondents engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the truth. The Lowndes County Attorney, Jim Elliot called such allegations "unfounded" and "baseless." The case could not be filed and heard in Lowndes County, as all of the local Superior Court judges had to recuse themselves due to proximity to the accused.

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The Department of Justice filed a motion in this civil case in November of 2015, intervening to stay the case. The U.S. Attorney claimed that allowing evidence discovery in the civil suit would be detrimental to the federal investigation, which had also expanded to examine potential obstruction and grand jury witness tampering. The motion was denied. Johnson's parents then decided to dismiss their wrongful death lawsuit, with intentions to refile following the conclusion of the federal investigation. This resulted in them being sued for both attorney fees and defamation damages.

Nearly a year later, in June of 2016, the Department of Justice officially stated they weren't going to file any criminal charges for Kendrick Johnson's death. They claimed that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any prosecutable federal crime was perpetrated.

Johnson requested that Kendrick's body be exhumed for a second time, and permission was granted by the city for this process in June of 2018. The case was officially reopened on March 10th, 2021. Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk has stated his refusal to say there was any error in the investigation or the investigation's conclusion. He asserts his lack of belief in the homicide theory, and furthermore insists the two brothers previously accused by the Johnson family are in no way suspects.

There are oddities in the case, however, as seen in the video from CNN below. Pieces of evidence including discarded shoes, a sweater, and peculiar blood splatter were never looked at closely by authorities. Could they have been the key all along? Additionally, an audio of an alleged confession of Kendrick Johnson's murder was sold to the family and turned over to the authorities.