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Murdered GA teen’s family seek justice and answers

Crump: “Judge’s ruling was a slap in the face”

D. Kevin McNeir | 11/14/2013, 9 a.m.
Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old Georgia athlete was found dead on January 11, 2013 inside a rolled-up gym mat.

In a report recently obtained by CNN, Bill Watson, the County coroner investigating the case of Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old Georgia athlete found dead on January 11, 2013 inside a rolled-up gym mat, said he disagrees with how the initial investigation was handled. Officials in Georgia’s Lowndes County say Johnson fell into the mat and suffocated while attempting to retrieve a sneaker. However, his family believes that the youth was murdered and that there have been efforts to cover up the crime.

Last Thursday, the family and their attorneys, including Benjamin Crump and Chevene King, were finally allowed to see video footage from Lowndes High School, the high school that Johnson attended and where his body was found. The surveillance tapes were provided by authorities only after a judge ruled that they must be released. And while the family had hoped that the videos would bring clarity and answer some long sought-after questions, viewing them only made for more confusion and disillusion.

“When we got the video what we saw was unbelievable,” Crump said. “There were 1,900 hours of footage, 36 cameras and 36 different angles — but the only one that is distorted is the camera facing the wrestling mats where Kendrick’s body was found. It begs the question whether someone distorted the video. The family is frustrated beyond words and had to sue just to get the footage released. What we all thought would be a moment of relief has just added to our frustrations.”

U.S. attorney’s office takes over

A second coroner’s death investigation report, unsigned and undated, was provided to CNN by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office. What was not made clear, Crump says, is why there were two coroner’s reports and why inconsistencies between them exist.

In recent developments, Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said “sufficient basis exists” to warrant a formal review of the facts. Last Thursday, a Georgia judge ruled that pending the outcome of that review, he will decide whether to hear the coroner’s inquest. Johnson’s parents had asked for the inquest and according to their attorney, will appeal the decision.

“It’s a slap in the face and is just the opposite of what we had hoped,” Crump added. “A coroner’s inquest which would have provided certainty as to the cause of death, would have taken no more than 60 days. But a federal review can take a very long time — even years. This family has already been waiting over 300 days, standing on street corners, holding posters asking for witnesses to come forward and even being arrested for their protest efforts. We’re going to the appellate court in Atlanta and our only goal is to reverse the decision that has ground a halt to the coroner’s inquest.”

A state medical examiner ruled Johnson’s death accidental, despite evidence of a neck injury found in a second autopsy conducted by a pathologist hired by the family. The youth’s fingernails had been clipped, his clothes were missing and organs had been removed and replaced with paper.

His parents say it seems like for every step forward they are forced to take two steps back.

“We are not allowed to comment on what we think happened to our son but we are looking for the support of organizations like the NAACP, churches and people in general — in ways big or small,” said Jacquelyn and Kenneth Johnson. “Somehow we have to move forward and we’re doing that by hiring a team to do a separate investigation. As for the officials who have been investigating Kendrick’s murder, we don’t trust them. Why should we? If they were trustworthy they would have done the right thing from the beginning.”