Because people don’t typically die and then roll themselves up in floor mats, the mysterious death of Georgia high school student Kendrick Johnson being written off as a freak accident has never sat right with Black people who are familiar with the case—least of all, Kendrick’s family.
In 2013, the 17-year-old’s body was found in a rolled-up wrestling mat in the gymnasium of Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. The Department of Justice declined to file charges in connection with Kendrick’s death after it said, “federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson’s civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime.” A wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family was also dismissed.
Now, more than eight years later, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office has decided to reopen the case, according to Sheriff Ashley Paulk.
From WALB 10:
Paulk told WALB News 10 that his office received 17 boxes of documents, computer towers and hard drives of information that was collected during previous investigations by other agencies into Johnson’s death.
Now, they are working to compare those notes to new information Paulk said the sheriff’s office has obtained and are looking for any discrepancies.
Paulk said it will take time to go through all the documents and there is not currently a timeline set for the findings.
According to CNN, Paulk was a retired sheriff who came out of retirement in 2017. In 2019, he sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia saying that it “is vitally important that we have access to any information on the case of K.J. Johnson that any federal agency has not previously released.” That request was denied.
“Nobody really cares,” Kendrick’s mother, Jacquelyn Johnson told Fox 5 Atlanta. “Nobody wants Kendrick to get justice. It’s just like shut this family up, sending them on their way, but what they didn’t realize is the Johnson family is not going anywhere.”
“Eight long years,” she continued. “The crying, the tears, the backlash. Being talked about, ridiculed. It has not been easy.”
Paulk told CNN that the Johnson family paid a visit to federal investigators in November 2020, and it was that meeting that eventually led to his request for information being granted.
“We’re not asking for any favors, Kendrick’s father, Kenneth Johnson, told CNN. “We’re not asking for anybody to lie for us. We just want the truth to come out.”
As The Root has previously reported, a state autopsy ruled that Kendrick’s death was an accident caused by “positional asphyxia,” but a forensic pathologist hired by his family ruled his death a homicide and said that there was evidence of “unexplained, apparent non-accidental blunt force trauma.”
The initial investigation “concluded that Johnson accidentally slipped into the center of the mat while reaching for a shoe and got stuck,” CNN reports, but that still doesn’t explain how he was found rolled up in a gym mat.
Paulk said some of the original investigators will be used along with some new investigators for the reopened case. The first interview was conducted Monday, according to Paulk.
The investigation could take up to six months.
“My plan is to see if there are any discrepancies between the reports,” said Paulk, who is leading the investigation.
He added he has no predisposition regarding the case.
Imagine suffering the devastating loss of having a child or immediate family member die, and eight years later, you still have no real explanation as to how or why it happened. The Johnson family deserves peace and Kendrick deserves an investigation conducted by people who care about finding the truth.