VALDOSTA — Kendrick Johnson’s father has testified he has no evidence his son was murdered by the sons of an FBI agent, according to depositions presented in court Wednesday.
Also, a superior court judge denied motions Wednesday filed by the U.S. Department of Justice seeking to halt the evidence discovery phase of a $100 million civil lawsuit filed by Johnson’s parents.
Kenneth and Jackie Johnson filed the lawsuit in January, alleging their son, Kendrick, was murdered by the two sons of FBI Agent Rick Bell and the cause of his death was covered up by a host of state and local officials.
Kendrick Johnson’s body was found upside down in a vertically stored gym mat at Lowndes High School in January 2013. A state autopsy ruled the 17-year-old’s death accidental. The Johnson family insists their son died of foul play.
Lawyers representing nearly 40 defendants named in the Johnsons’ lawsuit crowded the courtroom along with Johnson family attorney Chevene King and two attorneys for the federal government. Several defendants were present in the courtroom. Jackie Johnson was also present.
South Georgia Circuit Judge J. Richard Porter presided over the hearing at the Lowndes County Judicial Complex to rule on three motions filed by the DOJ: a motion to intervene, a motion to stay and a motion to file motions under seal.
DOJ attorney James Bennett asked the court to halt the discovery process in the civil suit for six months while feds continue a criminal investigation into the death of Kendrick Johnson. The federal investigation began more than two years ago.
Bennett said allowing evidence discovery in the civil suit to continue would have a “chilling effect” on the federal investigation, which has expanded into investigating possible obstruction and grand jury witness tampering.
Jim Elliott, legal counsel for the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, said permitting the DOJ “to intervene and stay the case would work a draconian injustice on all concerned.”
Porter denied all three DOJ motions just after noon, pointing to a lack of information and timeliness regarding the motions.
“There also has been no indictment,” Porter said. “This investigation has been going on for two years, and there is no indictment. … It would not be appropriate to intervene without an indictment.”
During the hearing, Tim Tanner, legal counsel for the City of Valdosta, presented sworn testimony from Kenneth and Jackie Johnson which was taken last week during depositions.
At one point, Kenneth Johnson was asked about evidence he had to support the claim his son was killed by Brian and Branden Bell, the sons of FBI Agent Rick Bell:
Kenneth Johnson: “I believe they have – they have – Brian and Branden had a lot to do with my son’s death.”
Question: “What did they have to do with it?”
Kenneth Johnson: “I have – I believe they had a lot to do with my son’s death.”
Question: “Well, tell me.”
Kenneth Johnson: “The evidence that I have at this time, I do not have any at this time.”
“This case is made up,” Tanner said. “This case is built on rumor and social media. This case is not built on truth.”
Tanner said Johnson’s parents responded with “I don’t know” and “I do not recall” more than 1,000 times during depositions and were unable to identify several defendants named in their suit or provide specific reasons for why they are included.
Tanner also said sworn testimony from Johnson’s family revealed the origin of a now-infamous post-mortem photo of Kendrick which is often on posters held by family members outside of the Lowndes County Judicial Complex.
Tanner said family members admitted during depositions the photo was taken after Johnson’s body was brought to a funeral home following a state autopsy. The photo does not represent how his body or face looked when first discovered at LHS.
Brice Ladson, a lawyer representing the Bell family, argued the public interest is served by continuing the depositions and discovery portion of the case because it “gets information out there.”
“The Bells have waited two years to clear their names of murder, allegations all based on rumor,” Ladson said. “They have suffered death threats, lost a valuable football scholarship and were forced to move out of state. They deserve a chance to clear their names.”
In his arguments to the court, the Johnson’s lawyer, Chevene King, supported the DOJ’s attempt to stay the discovery process. He said his clients’ lawsuit was an indictment of every local and state law-enforcement agency involved in the Kendrick Johnson case.
“My clients are only asking for the truth of what happened to their child,” King said. “If there has been a coverup, if they sat there and watched things happen that were designed to keep certain individuals from taking responsibility, that is a breach of law and order.”
King said his clients do not believe a mass conspiracy took place on the day of Johnson’s death but that certain law-enforcement agents did not report what they saw in order to protect the Bell family.
However, the Johnsons’ civil suit does outline a conspiracy claiming Rick Bell’s sons killed Kendrick on their father’s order and the murder was covered up at the direction of Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine and Lowndes County School Superintendent Wes Taylor.
Following the hearing, Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress, who attended the hearing, called for an end to the federal investigation into Johnson’s death.
“I am now asking the Department of Justice to conclude this investigation. This has been going on for two years, and it has created significant turmoil for the Johnson family, the Bell family and for the Valdosta and Lowndes County community,” Childress said. “This needs to end.”
Adam Floyd is a crime reporter at the Valdosta Daily Times.