Valdosta Daily Times

October 31, 2013

Sheriff Prine answers questions about KJ investigation

Adam Floyd
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The Times conducted an email interview this week with Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine regarding the Kendrick Johnson case.

While the sheriff openly discussed this case with The Times in May following the release of the state’s autopsy that showed the Lowndes County student’s death to be accidental, Prine agreed to the following Q&A session.

THE TIMES: Have you considered requesting the Department of Justice to come in to have a look at the Kendrick Johnson case? Why or why not?

PRINE: “No. A complete copy of the investigative case file was forwarded to United States Attorney Michael Moore immediately after the case was closed. That investigative file is a complete accounting of the work effort that was conducted during this investigation. I would welcome an independent review of this case by the Department of Justice.”

THE TIMES: What was your thinking behind ruling the death as accidental the day the body was found? If not, what was your reason?

PRINE: “On Jan. 11, 2013, it was explained to the Johnson family that based on the investigative findings known at that point, his death ‘appeared to be accidental’ but the investigation would continue and investigators would know more after the completion of an autopsy. I felt it was important for the Johnson family and the public to be assured that although a tragedy had occurred, nothing so far had been found to indicate that any other student was in danger. This in no way was an indication the case was being closed or that an investigation would not be conducted.

“Investigators immediately began conducting interviews and examining physical evidence in an attempt to learn what exactly had taken place. This investigation continued until May when the case was closed. Much of what was learned was not released to the public, as with any other investigation, in order to protect the integrity of the investigation and be able to provide a complete and thorough accounting of what took place.”

THE TIMES: Is there anything you would have done differently in handling the Kendrick Johnson case or presenting information to the public?

PRINE: “Certainly the coroner would be contacted immediately after the first deputies arrived at the school. This investigation was handled like all others in the past. The coroner was contacted once investigators had worked the surrounding scene and were prepared to make an examination of the deceased. The body of Kendrick Johnson was not touched or moved until the coroner arrived. Although not contacted by the Sheriff’s Office until investigators were prepared to examine the body, the coroner had knowledge that investigators were investigating a death at the high school.”

THE TIMES: Not counting CNN, have Kendrick Johnson’s family or their lawyers, especially in the last two months, contacted the Sheriff’s Office directly to request information?

PRINE: “During the investigation, investigators and I met with the Johnsons and provided them with the preliminary findings of the autopsy. Prior to the closing of the case, the Johnsons and their attorney met with investigators and requested a copy of the school surveillance video. Since the closing of the investigation, Kenneth Johnson has met with investigators and obtained items such as the shoes and the gray hooded sweatshirt, all of which were claimed as Kendrick Johnson’s personal property.”

THE TIMES: Georgia’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Kris Sperry said in an interview over the weekend that he stakes his reputation on the accuracy of the findings of Kendrick Johnson’s state autopsy (which determined the death was accidental). Do you stand by your department’s investigation?

PRINE: “Absolutely I do. I am confident that the investigative staff at the Sheriff’s Office, the Valdosta Lowndes Regional Crime Lab, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted a complete and thorough investigation. The determination to close this case was not based on any one factor or bit of information but on a totality of the facts obtained through interviews, forensic testing, the crime scene investigation and the autopsy.”

THE TIMES: The GBI was asked by your office to provide assistance. What was the division of labor while the scene was being analyzed and evidence collected?

PRINE: “The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was contacted at their Thomasville office shortly after the discovery of Kendrick Johnson’s body. This was done for a number of reasons. This call resulted in a number of GBI personnel, including crime scene investigators and investigative agents, all of which responded from Thomasville, responding. These agents provided assistance with the processing of the scene and the review of video at the school. In part, the decision to contact the GBI was based on the fact that a child had been found deceased at a school. In addition to the physical size of the school and the scene, there were any given number of interviews that may need to be conducted.”

THE TIMES: Do you consider the case to be closed?

PRINE: “Based on the information that was learned during the investigation, our investigative file has been closed; however, in the future, should new or additional evidence be discovered, appropriate investigative actions will be taken.”

THE TIMES: Do you know what considerations are being given to the case by Attorney Michael Moore’s office?

PRINE: “No. Again, I am aware that the investigative file was forwarded to Michael Moore’s office and would welcome his review of the file.”

THE TIMES: Do you have any family members or godchildren who knew or who were involved with Kendrick Johnson or his family? If so, what was the nature of the relationship(s)?

PRINE: “I have a daughter and two granddaughters, none of whom go to Lowndes High School or knew Kendrick Johnson.” The sheriff added later that he also has no godchildren.

THE TIMES: Did you at any point in the investigation have a person of interest or a suspect in the case?

PRINE: “Our investigators have remained objective and explored all avenues that were presented, including rumors. Each time a bit of information was learned, investigators made every possible effort to examine the information and interview the persons named.”

THE TIMES: Did you ever have any reason to search for a suspect?

PRINE: “No. Had any information been learned, including the development of a suspect during this investigation, those leads would have been exhausted. Nothing was learned during the investigation.”

THE TIMES: Have you ever received any credible information that would point to Kendrick’s death as non-accidental?

PRINE: “No. All information learned and documented during this investigation supports the investigative findings that this death was an accident.”

THE TIMES: How many interviews were conducted during the investigation?

PRINE: “During the investigation, numerous interviews, including students, coaches, teachers, janitorial staff and parents were conducted. This included every student who was identified as having been in the gym between the time Kendrick Johnson disappeared through the time that he was discovered. This also included members of the basketball team and winter color guard both (of) whom practiced in the gym on Jan. 10.”

THE TIMES: Have investigators identified anyone they would like to interview but have not been able to locate?

PRINE: “No. We have followed every lead that was learned including many rumors that were checked into.”

THE TIMES: Who initiated (Wednesday’s) hearing ...?

PRINE: “The Johnson family filed a suit in June 2013 seeking a hearing concerning the application of open record laws. In August 2013, County Attorney Jim Elliott filed a motion seeking a hearing on the matter.”

THE TIMES: Kendrick’s family believe their son was murdered and that there has been a cover up to protect people involved. (It has been) stated that a cover up of that magnitude is implausible and that in a search for answers, an injustice has been perpetrated on those who have investigated the case and who work for the school system by suggesting that they are a part of a cover up. Do you agree?

PRINE: “Yes, I do. I have all the confidence in the world that this investigation was handled with necessary diligence to assure that all leads were examined and exhausted. This investigation included the interviewing of witnesses, the documentation, examination and forensic testing of physical evidence, including over 800 photographs of the scene that were taken, the completion of a new procedure that captured a 360 degree digital scan, that allows for the scene to be later digitally recreated, and completion of an autopsy by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In order to provide additional assurances that all avenues were examined, investigative agents from the GBI were requested at the initial onset of this investigation. Any such cover up would require the collaboration of any number of Sheriff’s Office employees, agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, personnel from the Medical Examiner’s office and crime scene technicians from the Valdosta Lowndes Regional Crime Laboratory.”