“When this thing all started, I really thought there was something to it,” said the Rev. Floyd Rose, Valdosta-Lowndes County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference president, “but when the dust settles, the truth will still be the truth.”
Rose, along with Leigh Touchton, lead investigator for the Valdosta-Lowndes SCLC and former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, have been involved and invested in the case of Kendrick Johnson from the beginning, but over time they have come to the conclusion that the outrage surrounding the case may be unwarranted.
“When this [article] is written, the people who aren’t driven by emotion will sit down and look through it and say ‘unh, unh’ just like I did,” said Rose. “All those folks now who are jumping on a bandwagon that ain’t going nowhere will end up saying, ‘Now we understand.’”
Rose and Touchton say they have reason to believe that the lawyers for Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson have not been entirely truthful in their statements about information they have or have not received from law enforcement and school officials concerning the investigation of how the couple’s son came to be found dead inside a rolled wrestling mat in the old gym at Lowndes High School in January.
The majority of their suspicions arose after a July 25 conference call between Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, their lawyer Chevene King and approximately 60 NAACP and civil rights leaders from around the state of Georgia, including Touchton who was serving as lead investigator for the Valdosta-Lowndes NAACP at the time.
Touchton had been looking into the case since April after Larry Lockey, NAACP district coordinator, asked her to investigate it to the best of her abilities. Touchton had recently completed her fourth term as local NAACP president in December and was serving as the organization’s secretary.
Touchton became intimately familiar with the case, conducting interviews with family and students, questioning local officials and writing open records requests for information once the case was closed in May. By the time of the conference call, Touchton had received responses for 75 percent of the requests she had written.
“Prior to me asking questions (during the call), they made a series of statements that I followed up on the next day. At least three, four or five of those statements were absolutely not true,” said Touchton.
Touchton told The Times that most of the voices on the conference call were male and that it was difficult to distinguish one voice from another, but she was “pretty sure” that the voice making most of the statements was that of Chevene King, the Johnson’s lawyer.
“The attorney said he had the second autopsy but couldn’t release it because the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) was withholding reports, and they were being denied their open records requests,” said Touchton. “I believe the word he used was stonewalling, and people on the call were saying ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to do?’ and he said ‘We are going to have to make legal filings to get these reports.’”
Touchton recalls that the report the family was waiting for was the toxicology report, but during the phone call she had the initial autopsy conducted by the GBI in front of her.
“I was looking at the GBI autopsy, and there’s the toxicology report right there. The Valdosta Daily Times published it on their webpage in May,” said Touchton.
Web addresses to donation sites were given during the call and people were urged to send money to the family so they could fund the legal fights, but as far as Touchton is concerned, the information they were asking for had already been released.
The GBI later released a statement to radio station WVGA on Aug. 21 stating “all open records requests pertaining to the case have been fulfilled.”
When the subject of the conference call shifted to a discussion about Lowndes High School video-surveillance tapes, Touchton realized another inconsistency.
“The attorney said that he believed Kendrick was killed in another part of the school and that his body was subsequently moved to these mats and that the video tapes will show this,” said Touchton. “People asked, ‘Well, have you gotten the video tapes,’ and he said ‘No. We are being stonewalled by the school.’”
Warren Turner, attorney for Lowndes County Schools, said the Johnson family has been invited to view the surveillance tapes on several occasions.
“We have offered to show the videotapes to the family several times, even as recently as Friday the 19th,” Turner said.
Turner said Chevene King has turned down each request for the family to see the videos.
Touchton had heard claims of stonewalling from the moment the case was closed and open records requests could be filed, but she said that she received documents under open records requests that the family said they were denied.
Touchton and Matthew Loveday, Valdosta-Lowndes NAACP president, reviewed the materials with Jim Elliot, lawyer for the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, who explained that many of the details in the materials turned over in open records requests were redacted to protect the identity of students, a measure called for under the Family Educational Rights and Protection Act (FERPA), a federal mandate.
Touchton said she mentioned during the conference call that she was told by Elliot that the videos were protected under FERPA, but the family had been given the opportunity to view the tapes. She said she was yelled at, and one person on the call said, “I’m so sorry the family has to hear this.”
During an Oct. 10 press conference, Benjamin Crump, a recent addition to the Johnson family legal team, characterized the withholding of that information as “stonewalling.”
On Wednesday, a Southern Circuit judge heard a motion to release the videos and other pertinent information in the investigation’s files. The judge granted the request. The original motion filed in Lowndes County Superior Court specifically requested all documents and records relating to two Lowndes High School students who are named in the motion.
“On the conference call, I wasn’t given the name of the child, but I was given the name of the father, so that’s how I knew who the child was,” said Touchton. “(Kenneth Johnson) told us that there had been a fight between this child and Kendrick and that he was involved somehow in Kendrick’s death.”
The Times previously reported that the altercation occurred a year before Kendrick’s death.
“That was not portrayed on the conference call. The way it was portrayed on the conference call was, ‘We believe that we have the perpetrator, and they’re covering it up,’” said Touchton. “They gave some reasons why they believed law enforcement were covering this up, and people on the conference call just were outraged.”
Conference call participants were also outraged, according to Touchton, about the assertion made by Kenneth Johnson that no one from the Lowndes County Schools attended Kendrick’s funeral.
“This was six months after Kendrick’s death, so the father did not say this in the throes of grief. He said this on this conference call, and people on the call were outraged,” said Touchton. “One of the leaders on the call said, ‘Leigh, does that change your mind and make you now believe that this was a horrible cover up and that people from the school system didn’t care enough about this child to even come to the funeral?”
Touchton said she talked to a source at Lowndes High School who confirmed to her that Lowndes County School Superintendent Wes Taylor and David Troy went to the Johnsons’ house the night his body was found to express their condolences. She also said she was told that at least two school board members as well as several coaches attended and that a middle school coach even gave remarks at the funeral.
“What I want to be clear about is that the father said this in the middle of this conference call. It was an incredible emotional reaction, and people were outraged that the school system didn’t care about this child,” said Touchton, “but I was able to ascertain by following up that it was absolutely untrue.”
Touchton said that people on the conference call questioned the integrity of the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and claimed that the GBI was capable of a cover up and would know how to hide DNA evidence.
“The way the narrative came from the attorney and the father, the reaction from just about everyone on the phone was outrage and ‘Yes, we are going to send money to this family,” said Touchton. “I don’t have a problem with anybody sending money to anyone, but I have a problem with the other side of the story not being told.”
Touchton believes that allegations of a cover up are unfounded, and Rev. Floyd Rose agrees.
“Either he wasn’t murdered, or whoever did it was so powerful that they were able to hide him and cover up and have all these people lie,” said Rose, “If this was the 1960s, and you asked me that, and it was Valdosta, Ga., I would say, ‘well, maybe.’ But I just don’t believe that. Nobody has convinced me of that.”
Rose believes there are too many whistleblowers to perpetuate a cover up on a scale that would involve school officials, the sheriff’s office and the GBI, but understands why people would be prone to believe that given the difficult history of race relations in the South and in Valdosta.
“That’s all in the mind of black folks. So, when all this happened, they have a problem distinguishing the truth and what could be truth. The emotion is ‘here we go again.’”
Touchton resigned from the NAACP at the end of July as a matter of conscience following the conference call.
“We have to have justice for everybody,” said Touchton. “That means when you think your entire law enforcement, sheriff’s department, district attorney, all the school officials at Lowndes High, all the school board members, all the teachers and coaches, when you think they are all conspiring to cover up the murder of a black child, that’s unjust to all those people because they give their lives to help children.”
Touchton was reluctant to come forward and tell her story, but after a private email she sent early in October was widely disseminated around Valdosta by others, she said she felt she had no choice but to discuss the issue publicly. Since doing so, she has received threats from unnamed individuals in the community, but remains hopeful that the family can receive peace over the death of their son.