Dead teen's parents calls for coroner's inquest

Family, attorney continue to push for Lowndes County to reopen case

Author: Tim Pulliam, General assignment reporter, tpulliam@wjxt.com
Published On: Oct 22 2013 05:57:40 AM EDT   Updated On: Oct 22 2013 06:30:34 PM EDT
Kendrick Johnson
VALDOSTA, Ga. -

The family of a teen found dead in a rolled-up wrestling mat went to court Tuesday to demand a coroner's inquest into his death, arguing that conflicting autopsy reports require a second look by authorities.

Chevene King, a lawyer for the parents of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson, said he expected an inquest would find Johnson "was the victim of foul play," not the accident that Georgia authorities have ruled.

"How could you, in the midst of all these questions, deny this family an opportunity to have an investigation into the cause and manner of their child's death?" King asked. "This is one way in which that investigation could be reopened."

COURT DOCUMENT: Request for coroner's inquest

In January, Kendrick's body was discovered upside down in a rolled up gym mat at school.

The Johnson family has asked Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson for an inquest before back in March. In May, after investigators closed the case, Watson had indicated he would be willing to hold one -- but there was no immediate response from Watson to Tuesday's filing.

King said he expects a judge to hear the request by October 30.

Kendrick Johnson "We knew it was going to be this hard because this is Lowndes County," said Kentrick's father, Kenneth Johnson. "Lowndes County is not used to families fighting against them. And whatever it takes, how ever long it takes, we're here. We're going to stay."

A state medical examiner ruled the high school athlete suffocated in January after getting stuck head-down in the gym mat. But his parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, disputed the findings and won a court order to have their son's body exhumed for another autopsy.

The private pathologist who conducted that autopsy in June found that Johnson had a blow to the right side of his neck "consistent with inflicted injury." And in the process, he discovered that the teen's body had been stuffed with newspaper after his internal organs were removed for the original autopsy -- a grisly find that only fueled the Johnson family's suspicions about their son's death.

In a coroner's inquest, a jury hears evidence and determines whether a death was the result of natural causes, an accident, suicide or homicide. Another lawyer for the family, Benjamin Crump, said the proceeding is needed "so this family can have some peace in knowing what happened to their child."

Kendrick Johnson's parents and lawyer Benjamin Crump "This coroner has to consider witness testimony, video surveillance, in light of all the other things that are questionable about this to make not only the public have confidence in this finding, but this family to have some peace of knowing what really killed their child," Crump said.

Authorities in Valdosta say the case is closed, but the U.S. attorney for the district that includes the town has said he is reviewing the case and weighing whether to open his own investigation.

Friday, a lawyer for Lowndes County High School told CNN that surveillance footage from the gym shows other teens were inside around the time Johnson died, but the school has refused to release certain photos or video, citing state law that exempts the release of "education records of a minor child."

The Johnson family has called for that video to be released, and Crump said a coroner's inquest may make that possible.

"If that video shows others in that gymnasium, as has been reported, then they have a right to have this coroner's inquest," he said. "It is right, and justice demands so."

The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office says that some items within the investigation were withheld or redacted to protect the privacy of minors or because they constituted school records.  Crump said the technology certainly exists to blur faces seen in the video and release it to the family.

"That's the crux of the matter, so that this family can have closure and peace in knowing what really happened to their son," Crump said.