‘Fighting for Kendrick’

On Jan. 11, the bloodied body of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was discovered in a rolled-up gym mat at his high school in Valdosta, Ga. A popular student, KJ, as he was known, ran track and played basketball and football.

Within 24 hours of finding the young African American’s body, his face bloated and his dreadlocks soaked in blood, Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Pine said there was no reason to suspect foul play. An autopsy by the medical examiner ruled that KJ had died from “positional asphyxia.” The official story is that KJ became stuck head first while trying to reach for a sneaker that had fallen into the six-foot-tall wrestling mat, and suffocated in the narrow space.

Johnson’s parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, found too many flaws and inconsistencies in this account and continued to ask questions of the school administration and local police officials. They suspected their son had been ­murdered.

The high school has 40 surveillance cameras, including several in the gym area. Yet access to the tapes was denied for months to the family and their legal counsel, with the excuse that state law exempts the public release of “education records of a minor child.”

Frustrated by the lack of response to their questions, family and friends began staging daily demonstrations near the Lowndes County Courthouse in April. The autopsy paperwork was released in response, calling Johnson’s death accidental and a closed investigation.

In May, KJ’s body was exhumed so a second autopsy could be conducted by a privately hired pathologist, who ruled that Johnson died from non-accidental, blunt-force trauma to the neck. A shocking discovery was that all of the youth’s internal organs, from the skull to the pelvis, were missing, and that his body was stuffed with newspaper.

In related matters, the clothes Johnson was wearing at the time of his death are missing, as are the fingernail clippings taken at the first autopsy. Other physical evidence appears to be missing or mishandled as well.

Johnson’s parents continued to challenge the official story. Aided by social media, the skills of lawyers Benjamin Crump and Chevene King, and concerned individuals and organizations, pressure began to mount for the Justice Department to reopen the case.

On Oct. 30, a judge ruled that some 1,900 hours of videotape from the school’s cameras had to be released, including the footage of KJ walking into the gym at 1:09 p.m. on the day of his disappearance. In the film, which has been shown on television and the Internet, several other students are seen in Johnson’s vicinity.

The next day, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, Michael Moore, announced that “a formal review and investigation” of Johnson’s death would be conducted by his office. He stated that “sufficient basis exists” for a formal review by the FBI. Moore has the authority to bring criminal or civil rights charges if the evidence supports such action.

Johnson’s parents have struggled for more than 10 months to get a thorough public disclosure of the facts surrounding their son’s death. The battle is not in any way finished. They have declared that they will “keep fighting for Kendrick” until justice is won.