On what would have been his 18th birthday, Kendrick Johnson’s family took to the steps of the Lowndes County Judicial Complex Thursday to announce a push to obtain the school surveillance videos of the day their son died.
“I walked into his room this morning, and I kissed his picture to say ‘happy birthday, Kendrick.’ His dreams and memories will always be with us,” said Kenneth Johnson, Kendrick’s father.
Supporters from what has come to be known as the KJ Movement marched to the judicial complex chanting their desire for justice in the death of Johnson, a Lowndes High student whose body was found January inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in the school’s old gymnasium.
Chants subsided as Johnson family attorney C.B. King addressed the gathered crowd.
“At this point in this investigation, there is one eyewitness we know is available. It is the video recording of the surveillance cameras in the gymnasium where his body was found,” said King, “For some unknown reason, that tape has been withheld despite repeated requests by the family and myself to view the tape.”
Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, anything that contains “personally identifiable information” concerning a student is considered a student record, including images and videos of students. Student records are protected under the act and are prohibited from being disclosed unless ordered by a court.
“The tape, we believe, would greatly resolve many of the issues including how his body entered the gym if there is no tape or image of him entering the mat. That, of course, would identify possible suspects or persons who might have been involved in his killing,” said King.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who recently joined the KJ legal team, claimed the withholding of the tape is a part of a cover-up.
“You have to ask yourself why wasn’t that tape turned over to attorney King and the family,” said Crump, “That’s the real question here. Why are they trying to cover up for the murder of Kendrick Johnson?”
According to FERPA guidelines, students have the right, along with their parents, to access their own records, but they are not allowed to access the records of other students. Parents are permitted to view images or videos of their own children, but without a court order, they are not allowed to obtain anything, including surveillance video, pertaining to any other student. If a school violates the act, they are subject to legal action, including the removal of federal education funding.
Crump does not believe that the surveillance videos fall under the definition of school records.
Warren Turner, attorney for Lowndes County Schools, sent a comment on the school’s responsibilities under the privacy act, which considers visual depictions as part of the educational records of a minor child.
Turner cites the Georgia Code that information required by a federal act to be protected must remain so; and the Code of Federal Regulations, (Authority: 20 U.S.C. 1232g) which defines a record as “any information recorded in any way, including, but not limited to, handwriting, print, computer media, video or audio tape, film, microfilm, and microfiche.”
Additionally, the Code of Federal Regulations stating that if a record contains information on more than one student, the parent can only request and review the specific information about that student.
In other words, KJ’s parents, under the laws, but only KJ’s parents, have the right to view the portion of his student record, including the video footage, as long as information about any other student is protected, redacted or removed.
During the press conference, King introduced Crump, the Tallahassee, Fla., lawyer who was part of the legal team that represented Trayvon Martin.
“I am here, quite simply, because Kendrick Johnson was murdered, and we are going to get to the truth of what happened to Kendrick Johnson,” said Crump. “These parents sent their son to school with a bookbag, and he was returned to them in a body bag.”
Johnson’s family has maintained since their son’s death that foul play was involved, but the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded that his death was accidental.
“It is tragic that the coroner and the government officials would insult our intelligence by telling this family that the manner of death was an accident,” said Crump.
A second autopsy commissioned by the family was conducted by Dr. William R. Anderson, a for-hire pathologist in Florida. Anderson examined Johnson’s body and tissue slides of his organs and concluded that the cause of death was “apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma.”
Johnson’s family and legal team believe the differences between the first and second autopsies point to a mishandling of the case. Crump claimed that investigators with the Sheriff’s Office and the GBI failed to collect and examine evidence from the scene of Johnson’s death that could have contained trace evidence, including DNA.
“We think it is, at best, total incompetence and, at worst, an attempt to bury the truth,” said Crump.
In a segment aired by CNN on Wednesday, it was reported that Johnson’s organs had been removed and that his body and skull had been stuffed with newspapers, a fact that elicited outrage from Crump.
“You can imagine the pain the family experienced once it was revealed to them the condition of the body once it reached Orlando and was opened up by Dr. Anderson. I think that, as you think about this idea that all of his organs were removed, you have to wonder why,” said Crump. “Why would his organs have been removed?”
During an autopsy, internal organs must be removed by the medical examiner, but are generally returned with the body for burial. It is not clear why the organs were not returned when the body was transported from the GBI crime lab to Harrington Funeral Home, but the Valdosta funeral home took extreme exception with the CNN report Wednesday that called their embalming process into question.
Harrington’s attorney, Roy Copeland of Copeland, Haugabrook & Walker, released a letter to The Times Thursday afternoon addressing the allegations about how KJ’s body was treated before burial.
The letter states that both Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson and a Mr. Bryan with the crime lab confirmed that the “viscera” or internal organs “were disposed of, due to decomposition of the same. Again, the intent and purpose of this letter is to dispel any notion that Mr. Harrington or Harrington’s Funeral Home were involved in any manner with the disposition of this young man’s internal organs.”
The second autopsy report conducted by Anderson notes that the organs were not included with the body. However, the report does not indicate that Anderson opened the body for examination and does not include any mention of how the body was embalmed. The autopsy report notes that Anderson’s assessments of the internal organs were made from microscopic examination of slides provided by the GBI crime lab from the initial autopsy.
Copeland, on Harrington’s behalf, also takes issue with the statement in the CNN report that the body was stuffed with old papers “like he was a garbage can.”
In the letter, Copeland states that the manner in which KJ’s body was prepared for burial “complies with the standard of care employed when there has been a significant decomposition of a body and the internal organs are missing.”
Disputing statements made by CNN experts, the letter quotes “The Principles and Practices of Embalming” as stating that in cases where all of the viscera has been removed at autopsy and has not been returned to the body, the treatment would include drying the chest cavity, dusting it with a hardening compound or embalming powder, and filling it with dry, clean sawdust or cotton mixed with a hardening compound or embalming powder.
Copeland states that KJ’s body was treated as all decomposed bodies with missing internal organs would be treated, according to the established principles and practices.
Editor Kay Harris contributed to this report.