Valdosta Daily Times

October 23, 2013

Johnson family files petition for coroner’s inquest

Stuart Taylor
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The family of a 17-year-old found dead earlier this year at Lowndes High School has filed a petition Tuesday in Lowndes County Superior Court seeking the coroner open an inquest into their son’s death.

Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, parents of Lowndes High student Kendrick “KJ” Johnson, filed the court petition for a coroner’s inquest. Joined by their attorneys Chevene King and Benjamin Crump, as well as members of their family and community supporters, the Johnsons’ petition calls for Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson to conduct a coroner’s inquest into the death of their son.

“Mr. Watson has a duty to conduct an inquest whenever there is an unsettled issue regarding the cause and manner of death,” said King. “In this instance, we believe that based upon the two autopsy reports, which conflicted, that he has a duty to convene a hearing whereby jurors can decide whether Kendrick Johnson died as the result of an accident or whether it was the result of a homicide.”

A coroner’s inquest works as an inquiry into the manner and cause of a person’s death. Conducted in front of a court reporter and local, six-person jury, an inquest allows a coroner to subpoena and question witnesses as well as procure and examine evidence and reports.

At the end of the inquest, the jury deliberates and delivers a verdict as to the cause and manner of death. The coroner’s inquest and subsequent verdict are not a criminal trial, but the findings of the inquest would have to be made public.

This is the third request the family has made for a coroner’s inquest. The first two were made directly to Watson through letters.

“How could you in the midst of all these questions deny this family to have the opportunity to have an investigation into the cause and manner of their child’s death?” said Crump. “The sheriff has already closed his file. He’s ended his investigation. This is one way in which that investigation could be re-opened.”

In September, Watson told The Times he has no reason to convene a coroner’s inquest because the state has provided an accidental cause of death, which means there are no suspects. Having a cause and no suspects, there is no purpose of having an inquest, the coroner said, because there would be “no place for it to go.”

The state’s investigation determined the LHS student’s cause of death was accidental. A second autopsy, initiated by the Johnsons, determined the death as non-accidental.

Along with the conflicting autopsy reports, King and Crump cited the coroner’s comments earlier this year stating that the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office had compromised the death scene and interfered with his duties as coroner as an additional reason for conducting a coroner’s inquest.

Crump and King also called for the release of LHS video surveillance tapes from the gymnasium, where Kendrick Johnson’s body was discovered in January.

“It only stands to reason that as many times as the media reports altercations in school buses that are covered by video camera and you have no such problem making that installation public, how could these parents be denied the opportunity to see a similar kind of transaction,” said King.

While part of a gym surveillance video tape was realized to CNN in recent weeks, King and the Johnson family believe there are other cameras in the gym that were recording that day.

“There are as many as four video cameras in the gymnasium,” said King. “There is one of these cameras that is aimed in the direction of the corner where Kendrick Johnson’s body was discovered. ... To the extent that that camera was operational, it should show either Kendrick entering the mat as theorized or that he was brought to the gymnasium by something other than his own power.

“If the Sheriff’s investigation is correct, if he climbed into that wrestling mat, we will see it with our own eyes. But if that is not the case, as we suspect it is not, then we will see that.”

The filed petition asks for the court to designate a date and time between 10 and 30 days from the filing for Watson to appear before the court and show cause why he shouldn’t be required to perform an inquest. The petition also calls for Watson to convene an inquest.

“At some point between those two markers, the judge, based off of his availability, will set down a day and time in which Mr. Watson will then be expected to appear and respond to that petition,” said King.

While KJ’s parents remained silent throughout most of the press conference, they spoke at the end about the impact their son’s death has had on them.

“I knew this was going to be hard because this is Lowndes County,” said Kenneth Johnson. “Whatever it takes, however long it takes, we’ll be there.”

“(I’m) torn. I’m still trying to understand,” said Jacquelyn Johnson.