VALDOSTA, Ga. - The attorney who helped push for a criminal prosecution in Trayvon Martin's shooting said Thursday that he's joining the fight to reopen an investigation into the death of a Georgia teenager whose body was found inside a rolled-up wrestling mat at school.
The body of Kendrick Johnson, 17, was found Jan. 11 in south Georgia, and Lowndes County sheriff's investigators concluded that he died in a freak accident -- falling headfirst into an upright mat and becoming trapped. But Johnson's family believes he was killed and has been pressuring authorities into taking a second look at the case.
Now the family has enlisted the help of Tallahassee-based attorney Benjamin Crump -- best known as the lawyer who helped focus national attention on the February 2012 shooting death of Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Crump has pursued several civil rights cases against law enforcement agencies. He said Johnson's parents came to him seeking help.
"This is a real-life murder mystery where these parents sent their child to school with a book bag and he was returned to them in a body bag," Crump said. "They brought me in to make sure this is not able to be swept under the rug in small-town Georgia and they never get justice for their child."
School officials found Johnson's body in the gym after his parents reported him missing the night before. He was stuck upside down in the middle of a wrestling mat that had been rolled up and propped upright behind bleachers.
Sheriff Chris Prine has said he suspected Johnson became trapped while trying to retrieve a shoe that fell into the center of the large rolled mat. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner concluded that the youth died from positional asphyxia, his body stuck in a position in which he couldn't breathe.
But the teen's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, hired Dr. William R. Anderson to provide a second opinion after a judge agreed in May to exhume the body. The private pathologist performed his own autopsy in June and presented a four-page report of his findings Aug. 15.
Anderson's report said he detected hemorrhaging on the right side of Johnson's neck. The pathologist concluded the teenager had died from blunt force trauma near his carotid artery and that the fatal blow appeared to be "non-accidental."
GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang said the agency stands by its original findings.
"We have an excellent team of medical examiners, and we stand by them 100 percent," Lang said.
Johnson's family asked the Justice Department to get involved, arguing that authorities failed to investigate Johnson's death thoroughly because he's black. But the Justice Department found insufficient evidence to support an investigation. U.S. Attorney Michael Moore in Macon has been monitoring the case but has yet to announce whether he'll take any further action. Moore did not immediately return a phone message Thursday.
Crump said the Johnson family's legal team plans to focus on getting the official manner of death in the case changed from accidental to homicide. Asked how he planned to do that, Crump said, "We're going to have to look at getting the courts involved." He said it was too soon to be more specific.
Attorneys are also demanding access to surveillance video where Johnson's body was found.
At the news conference Thursday outside the Lowndes County Courthouse, attorneys and family members asked the School District and the Sheriff's Office to turnover those tapes to the family.
"I want to say to the school, to the sheriff department, let's give him a good present today. Give us the videotapes," said Kenneth Johnson, Kendrick's father.
The family's attorney, Chevene King, has made countless attempts to get them from investigators and the school district.
"We have been told by the School Board's attorney that the reason they are not giving up the tape is because they consider them to be academic records," King said.
The Sheriffs Office and the School District said it's against federal law to give the family the video because the tapes show images of other children shortly after Kendrick Johnson entered the gym.
The district and the Sheriff's Office said if the Johnson family wants access to those videos, they have to get file a court motion to get them. Both organizations said the family's attorneys have been told that information.
Dozens of students, investigators say, have been ruled out as suspects, and investigators declared his death an accident. But the family believes he was killed.
The Sheriff's Office has closed its investigation. The Department of Justice is reviewing the case.
Thursday would have been Johnson's 18th birthday.
"I walked into his room and I kissed his picture and said happy birthday to him," Kenneth Johnson said. "His dreams, memories will always be with us."
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