Another Black male dies, another couple seeks justice for their lost sonBy Starla Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Oct 14, 2013 - 12:57:43 PM
A grieving family’s doubts grow about ‘accidental’ death of teenager Kendrick Johnson
The tragedy and mystery of the case, which has garnered national and international attention, cuts deeper as parents are finding few satisfactory answers to their questions.
Attorney Benjamin Crump and many others do not believe Kendrick’s death was accidental, but was the result of foul play.
“We believe Kendrick was murdered. His parents sent him to school with a book bag and he was returned to them in a body bag,” Attorney Crump, who is on the Johnson family legal team, told The Final Call in a telephone interview.
The Florida attorney is calling the case “a real life murder mystery.”
“In all honesty, my first thought when I saw Kendrick’s case, because we had been over the last two years or year and a half working so hard for Trayvon Martin’s family to get justice, it was ‘here we go again’ can we get justice for Kendrick’s family?” he said.
An incredible story about teen’s death
Kendrick’s body was found Jan. 11 rolled up inside gym mats at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga. He was reported missing by his parents after he did not come home from school the day before. The Lowndes County Sherriff’s department ruled Kendrick’s death an accident and closed its investigation in May. The coroner agreed, saying the teen died by “positional asphyxiation” when reaching head first into upright mats and getting stuck trying to retrieve a shoe that had dropped into the mats.
“There’s a lot of other evidence. The whole notion that his organs were missing and the fact that his clothes are missing, those are valuable pieces of evidence that could have told us also who did this to Kendrick,” said Atty. Crump.
Law enforcement officials have not said what happened to clothes Kendrick was wearing at the time of his death nor is there any new information about what happened to his organs, he added.
“We have been fighting a battle against the fear that ravages the community that’s being a small Southern town. The influencers, the sheriff and other law enforcement agencies have been causing people to basically steer clear of anything that’s controversial. That has been our biggest obstacle,” said Georgia attorney Chevene B. King, who also is representing the Johnson’s.
Valdosta is situated in Lowndes County, Ga., about 230 miles south of Atlanta, 15 miles from a border of Florida and has a population of approximately 55,000 people.
Kendrick was very well-liked and popular, said Atty. King.
Does surveillance tape hold key evidence?
One of the main priorities is getting a copy of the surveillance video from cameras in the gymnasium, the attorney said. He told The Final Call the school system and sheriff’s department have the video. Authorities have argued under Georgia’s Open Records Act the footage is considered “academic records” therefore they are prohibited from releasing it.
They have chosen to construe the video of other students as academic records, said Atty. King.
“That is of course, a really ridiculous interpretation of what the law prohibits. How you can infer that? How you can see … anything academic about kids engaged in any sort of behavior while on the school campus, that is just the presence of them on a school campus that makes that academic? That doesn’t make any sense,” he added.
Atty. Crump agreed. “We still believe there’s an answer to what happened on the surveillance video and you question why won’t this sheriff’s department release that video because if the truth will be right there, we’ll be able to see it. It will speak to us, they don’t have to say anything else,” he said.
Efforts to at least let Mr. and Mrs. Johnson view the video has been met with resistance and stonewalling, charged both attorneys.
“Why haven’t they shown the parents the video from the gym that supposedly will show whether their son ever even went near these rolled up mats where he’s supposed to have slipped down into the opening of and gotten stuck?” asked Atty. King. “Why would you let 8 going on 9 months of suspicion develop when it would be a simple matter of pressing a button and allowing them to see for themselves what happened to their child?”
He said the couple had not gotten written or verbal communication indicating any problems with or malfunctioning cameras the day of Kendrick’s death.
“Why it is that when we go to the gym and we’ve been there on two occasions and we’re looking at as many as 4 and perhaps 5 cameras in this gym, you can only show us about 4 or 5 frames of him (Kendrick) entering the gym but he’s not running in the direction of where these mats are, he’s going in something in an altogether different direction?” Atty. King asked.
The video footage is individual still shots, similar to time lapse photography, not rolling video, explained Atty. King. If Kendrick were in fact by himself the entire time and no other person was there, then why not show the entire footage? he asked.
“The wall that is opposite where the mats were where he supposedly fell into, that wall has got 4 cameras at least mounted on it, so the general direction of those 4 cameras is forward and thus would clearly cover that side of the gym,” Atty. King explained.
Lieutenant Stryde Jones of the Lowndes County Sheriff’s office told The Final Call his office does have video footage from the school but there is no footage of the area where the mats were stored. There were no cameras pointed at that direction, he said.
“Our case continues to be closed, however having said that, if new information or a witness or a piece of forensic evidence happened to be discovered then absolutely we are open to reopening the case and take a look at that new information.” said Lt. Jones.
When asked about findings from the second autopsy, Lt. Jones confirmed the report from the second autopsy was received.
“We have reviewed it and we compared it to the information that was given to us by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner’s office and we stand by the medical examiner’s office findings. I mean we are confident that they conducted a thorough forensic investigation on the part of the pathologist when they did the autopsy. We’re confident in that and we stand by their decision,” said the lieutenant.
He confirms there was blood on the wall that did not belong to Kendrick that was sent for DNA testing and run through a national DNA data base which “was unable to match it to anyone.” The blood probably belongs to a student and the possibility is vast in terms of how it got there because the gym is used frequently, added Lt. Jones. The blood was found several feet from where Kendrick was found, he added.
Lt. Jones also said his office interviewed over 100 students and reviewed the video. There was footage of a student who entered the gym with Kendrick who went to the right, while Kendrick went to the left, he said. The student was interviewed and said he exited the gym through a back door and, shortly thereafter, other students entered for gym classes, said Lt. Jones. He disputes reports the crime scene was tainted.
Although there was a gym class going on during the time when Kendrick’s body was discovered, Lt. Jones said the gymnasium and another wing of the school were immediately secured. The coroner was called as soon as crime scene investigators completed their assessment, he added. “Once they made their way and began the actual investigation where Kendrick Johnson was discovered, nothing was moved, nothing was altered, nothing was changed (and) the coroner was notified and arrived on the scene shortly thereafter.”
Determined parents won’t quit seeking truth
Atty. King said despite everything that has happened, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are holding up “remarkably well.”
“If I could speculate on how they have been able to, I guess avoid being totally consumed by the sadness and pain of losing their son and then having learned that they buried not all of their son but only half of him, it is because they have totally immersed themselves into this ‘movement.’ Each and every day, six days a week they’re on a street corner with their posters and signs outside the courthouse demanding that they get justice for their son,” said Atty. King.
That activity, explained Atty. King, has helped them cope with their loss and not feel helpless. The couple is determined to find out what happened to Kendrick. Many don’t believe it was a freak accident as the sheriff’s office concludes.
“I believe they’re covering up for somebody. They know who did this to Kendrick Johnson and the question is why are they covering it up? Because it’s ridiculous, this whole notion that he died by climbing up on a wrestling mat trying to get a shoe and fell down in the wrestling mat. I mean that mystifies all common sense. It’s ridiculous,” said Atty. Crump.
When asked if there were any concerns about the possibility of the surveillance tape being tampered with the longer it is withheld, Atty. Crump said, “We don’t know what they are doing to the tape but when we get it we will be able to tell if the tape was doctored or not.”
Atty. Crump said intervention on the federal level to get the footage may be necessary but in the meantime legal action will be filed locally on behalf of the family for the footage.
Atty. King said the parents have asked for a federal investigation for a long time but he is aware of a federal review of files obtained from the sheriff’s office.
“They’ve (federal authorities) not yet made a decision to actually go forward with an investigation. I don’t know whether it’s just accepted as being their style of conducting investigations or arriving at a decision to conduct an investigation that they precede very, very slow and I’ll say deliberate manner, just to give them the benefit of the doubt,” said Atty. King.
The U.S. Justice Department issued a statement Sept. 5 that said in part, “We obtained the state investigative file from United States Attorney Michael Moore, of the Middle District of Georgia, who referred the matter to the Civil Rights Division for review. We reviewed the investigative file and carefully considered whether the allegations involve a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes. Although we do not see sufficient indication of a civil rights violation to authorize a civil rights investigation, we have discussed this matter with U.S. Attorney Moore, and his office is continuing to monitor and evaluate this matter including the second autopsy report.”
When asked what cases like Kendrick Johnson, Trayvon Martin, Omarri Williams, Marlon Brown and countless others reveals about the justice system and transparency of investigations when it comes to Black people, Atty. Crump said it shows the lives of young, Black men are seen as having no value.
“They feel that they can put anything in a report and that we will accept it, that we won’t defend the lives of our children. That we will let them for political or ideological reasons devalue the lives of young, Black men,” he said.