Valdosta Daily Times

May 2, 2013

LHS student death draws Al Sharpton

Quinten Plummer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — While South Georgians anxiously await the official autopsy report in the January 2013 death of a Lowndes High School sophomore, the investigation may draw national debate as civil rights activist Al Sharpton heads to Valdosta on Saturday to rally with those who believe Kendrick Johnson's death was no accident.

Sharpton is scheduled to address Lowndes County citizens at Serenity Christian Church this Saturday evening, according to his website and confirmed Wednesday by Johnson's father, Kenneth. The reverend's visit comes as the voices of murder theorists cry louder and gather support for a new investigation.

For weeks, demonstrators have been displaying gruesome images of Johnson's post-mortem face on posters downtown to convince fence riders that Johnson's death was a homicide.

In January, Kendrick Johnson was found dead in the old gymnasium on the LHS campus. Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office proclaimed no foul play in the case on the same day as the teen’s body was discovered. Authorities believe Johnson was alone in the gym, reached for a loose shoe and fell into a rolled-up wrestling-type mat, became trapped, and died from being upside down for an extended period of time. Following weeks of demonstrations and two major rallies without incident, several of Johnson's family members and supporters were arrested last week as they held hands in front of the door of the Lowndes County Judicial Complex.

Despite the protests, Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine said his department performed a thorough investigation and found no evidence that Johnson was murdered.

“You can't make an accident a murder or murder an accident,” said Prine. "The only thing we can do is go by the evidence that was collected at the scene and present it to the medical examiner. Nothing on the body suggested anything other than an accident.”

Prine has taken flack for not reaching a determination that the tenth-grader was murdered, but he stressed that his ruling of “no foul play” was tentative and awaited analysis by the Georgia Bueau of Investigation, whose agents were also on the scene with the sheriff's department the day Kendrick's body was found.

“The family was very inquisitive about what out investigation entailed. I advised them it appeared to be an accident,” said Prine. “I told them we wouldn't know for sure until an autopsy could be done. And we've asked numerous times if [the GBI] would put a rush on this report for the sake of both the family and the public.”

The sheriff has also taken heat from Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson. Watson believes too much time elapsed between the discovery of Johnson's body and when he was called to rule the student deceased.

“I was out of town that morning when we received a call that a body had been found in the gym,” said Prine. “I didn't get back into town until late that afternoon. But as soon as I got back, I went straight to the scene. And no law-enforcement officer touched that body until the coroner got there and examined it.”

The autopsy report may not be satisfactory as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation may require an external audit regarding its handling of Kendrick's autopsy, said civil rights attorney C.B. King of Albany, who represents the Johnson family. The GBI was involved in the initial investigation of Kendrick's death.

“There's concern that (the GBI) could do this investigation, which may involve them investigating themselves,” said King. “What you really need is someone who hasn't been involved with the investigation. When KJ went to the crime lab, he had clothes on. When he came back, he didn't. Mr and Mrs. Johnson and myself drove to Macon together. While there in the GBI crime lab and asking about Kendrick's clothes, they acknowledged that they didn't know where his clothes were.”

The fact that the image of Johnson's face post-mortem was made available to the public suggests that there was a severe breach of security somewhere in the investigation, but Prine maintains that the chain of custody remained intact from the gym mats where Johnson's body was discovered to the GBI's crime lab. And Johnson's family won't reveal how they obtained the classified image.

“I don't know where they got the picture,” said Prine. “The photo should not have been taken and presented like it was, because it leaves the citizen and family in doubt due to how awful he looked. It was a horrible death, whether it was an accident or murder. My prayers go out to the family. We've done everything we know to do.”

Whatever the source of the autopsy photo, Johnson's father said the image confirmed his suspicions that his son was murdered and that the trauma and uneven swelling to his son's face wasn't consistent with the uniformed swelling associated with positional asphyxiation. Kenneth Johnson also said, as bad as his son's face looks in the autopsy photo, his face was worse when he went to view Kendrick's lifeless body.

“How many people send their kids to school expecting that they won't come home while under the supervision of school officials, all of those school officials and the millions of dollars that are represented by that organization,” said King. “The community deserves an investigation that not only goes at the truth of what occurred, but arms the community with the knowledge to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Sharpton and his National Action Network are expected to rally 5-6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 4, Serenity Christian Church, 1619 N. Lee St.