An investigation into the death of Kendrick “KJ” Johnson, the Georgia teenager whose body was found rolled up in a gym mat, was reopened by the Lowndes County, Ga., sheriff, giving his family, who has long maintained he was killed, a new chance to find out what happened to him.
Sheriff Ashley Paulk confirmed to reporters on Tuesday (March 9) that he has reopened the case after receiving documents from federal investigators that he requested two years ago.
“We ain’t cheering, but we know this is the only path that we can get for justice for Kendrick Johnson,” Marcus Coleman, a spokesman for the family told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Johnson, 17, was a sophomore at Lowndes County High School in Valdosta, Ga., when he was found upside down in a mat outside of the school in January 2013. An investigation determined that he accidentally slipped into the center of the mat after reaching for a shoe and became trapped.
“There are a set of underlying questions that demand better answers than we have received so far,” Rev. Raphael Warnock said in an interview with BET.com at the time, years before he was elected to the U.S. Senate. “He went to school with a book bag and ended the day in a body bag. And the explanations defy common sense. His parents deserve better answers and we as Americans deserve better answers.”
An autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded that Johnson died of asphyxiation. But a private autopsy requested by the family found that the teen died of “non-accidental” blunt force trauma to his neck, leading them to believe foul play was involved.
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But the U.S. Department of Justice determined in 2016 there was insufficient evidence to prove that any crime was committed against him.
Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, Kendrick’s parents, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2015 against three individuals, alleging that they killed the teen. They also charged that the death was covered up by Lowndes County school and law enforcement officials. But a judge in Lowndes County Superior Court ruled against them. Race became a centerpiece of the case. Johnson is Black while two of the teens his family accused, brothers Branden and Brian Bell are white. They are currently not suspects in any crime.
Paulk, who was in retirement at the time, said that he was unsure that what happened was accidental. "If there's questions -- and they're legitimate -- I need to know the answers myself. The only way I'm going to know is to look at the evidence myself," he said, according to CNN
He came out of retirement in 2017 and two years later requested information that federal investigators collected be released to his office. The government denied that request.
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But a meeting between the Johnson family and federal investigators last year changed their minds and Paulk’s office has since received 17 boxes of written and electronic evidence from the case.
"It's been eight long years," Jacquelyn Johnson, said to CNN. "I'm feeling hopeful."
Paulk says that he will treat the investigation like a brand new case and that there are unanswered questions still lingering about it. “We are confident in what (we) will come up with will be the truth,” he told the Valdosta Daily Times.