Valdosta Daily Times

October 31, 2013

Judge grants ‘KJ’ family access to videos, reports

Adam Floyd
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — “We are one step closer to getting to the truth,” said Benjamin Crump, attorney for the parents of Kendrick Johnson, whose death on the Lowndes High School campus in January has left the family with many unanswered questions.

Crump made the statement Wednesday following more than two hours of deliberation in the chambers of Southern Circuit Judge Harry Altman concerning a suit brought against Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine to release previously redacted and omitted material that was not included in the family’s open records request for all information relating to their son’s case.

Initially, the sheriff’s office withheld the information, according to their attorney Jim Elliot, due to concerns over protecting the rights of minors who would be identified with the release of the information.

“Yes, [protecting identifying information of minors] was a primary concern in our decision to initially hold that information until a court could make a decision, and we expressed those concerns to the court. The court heard those concerns, and at the same time determined that the information should be made public.”

Elliot said, “There was identifying information, some records that we believe were schools records, and there were some cell phone records that we reasonably believed  contained many minors’ phone numbers. Our overriding concern is to protect the interests of minors.”

Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, Kendrick’s parents, waited with family, friends and supporters in courtroom 5D at the Lowndes County Judicial Complex to hear the decision. Just before noon, Crump and Chevene King, another lawyer for the Johnson family, emerged from the judge’s chambers.

“We have been most successful,” said King. “The court has granted an order to give us all the material we had previously requested.”

Those gathered in the courtroom erupted in shouts and cheers at the news, and their excitement echoed through the halls and stairwells of the complex as the crowd gathered outside in front of the steps to address the media.

King and Crump announced they will soon have copies of school surveillance videos they believe will lead to alternate theories about what happened to Kendrick Johnson the day he died. The lawyers were clear that they do not believe the videos will show Kendrick entering a wrestling mat.

“The family’s lawyers now have complete copies of all the records including the unredacted information, and they were given two DVDs of some video images of students, but that contained limited information. There is other video camera footage that is stored in such a way that makes it difficult to reproduce. We are determining a way to make that available and it should be by the end of the week,” said Elliot.

Elliot also said the area were Kendrick’s body was found is “not visible on any of the surveillance footage that I have seen, and I don’t have any reason to believe that it is visible in the footage left to unpack. The additional information that has been made public today, I don't believe provides anything substantive that hasn’t been seen or considered before. Its primarily information that identifies minors. The video information from the gym cameras is not demonstrative of anything that touches on the issue of what happened to Kendrick Johnson.”

The family and lawyers hope there will be enough evidence to reopen the investigation and involve the Department of Justice.

When the documents and videos are turned over by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, the Johnson family, their lawyers, CNN, who was also a party to the suit, and others who complete an open records request will have access to identifying information of Lowndes High students.

Crump said that there were concerns expressed in chamber about people potentially using the information that will be released to cause harm to individuals who appear on video but were not involved in Kendrick’s death.

Warren Turner, Lowndes County Schools attorney, said all items are being provided to the family by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office. No materials are being provided by Lowndes High School or the county school system.

“I think it’s important that all legal entities that receive identifying information of minors use great discretion before releasing information concerning those children,” Turner said. “I hope they would treat that info as if it pertained to their minor children, family members or children of neighbors.”

Crump stated that he expects to hear more Monday about the family’s petition for a coroner’s inquest that was filed last week in Lowndes County Superior Court.