Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
For Kendrick Johnson’s family, it has been eight long agonizing years since the 17-year-old was found dead in the gymnasium at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., wrapped in a gym mat upside down on January 11, 2013. The county sheriff’s department concluded after its short investigation that the youth died in a freak accident. Sheriffs said he crawled into the mat while trying to recover a sneaker and suffocated.
Kendrick’s parents, Kenneth and Jaquelyn Johnson, never believed that narrative. They have kept fighting for justice with the belief that Kendrick was the victim of foul play.
The investigation has been restarted. There is again hope that the truth about the tragic death will come out. And, if there was foul play that those involved will be caught and charged.
Family spokesperson Marcus Coleman, founder, and CEO of Save Ourselves, a social advocacy program based in Atlanta, is also among those who never gave up. Inspired by the 2020 successful call for the state prosecutor to release information related to the police killing of Breonna Taylor in St.
Louis, which drew global attention, Mr. Coleman pressed again for sharing evidence in the Johnson death and a reopening of the case. In December boxes of evidence collected by federal agents who investigated the case were delivered to Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk. The sheriff announced March 10 he would be reopening the Johnson case.
During an interview with The Final Call, Sheriff Paulk said, “We are comparing everybody’s investigation to see if there are any discrepancies. It’s going to be very tedious. The federal files consist of 17 boxes, 14 of which are written material. The other boxes consist of hard drives, discs, and the like. It’s been eight years, so we are not going to rush.”
Sheriff Paulk retired from the office in 2012. He returned to public life in 2016, winning the sheriff’s office again, and pledged to look into the case if given the evidence.
Federal authorities provided no answers in 2016 when they closed their investigation. The Justice Department released a statement saying investigators “found insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges.”
On May 2, 2013, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations Medical Examiner concluded that Kendrick died from “positional asphyxia.” Kendrick became entrapped upside down in the rolled-up mat and suffocated, they said. The Medical Examiner ruled Kendrick’s death an accident. Shortly after that, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office closed its investigation.
However, in June 2013, an autopsy of Kendrick’s exhumed body requested by the family had different results. Dr. William Anderson concluded the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the right side of Kendrick’s neck, near the jaw, and the manner of death was not an accident. He also found injuries to the jaw area that Georgia Bureau of Investigation did not.
During an exclusive interview with The Final Call, family spokesperson Marcus Coleman said, “I’ve been on a sole mission since October to get this thing where it’s at. I am happy to say I am cautiously optimistic moving forward.”
Mr. Coleman told The Final Call he was inspired to action by Tamika Mallory and her efforts on behalf of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and last summer’s uprisings. “When she got that mini victory having the secret grand jury proceeding unsealed for Breonna, I felt like myself, and other advocates of families around the country need to demand that it should happen for them (the Johnsons.)”
Mr. Coleman went back to square one, starting with the Middle District of Georgia, where the federal case originated. “They closed the door in my face,” he said. He was referred to the Northern District of Ohio. After exerting much effort and threats, he was able to garner consent for release of the records with the parents’ aid. This was last November.
“We met with Sheriff Paulk on Friday, March 5, and he was just puzzled as to how those boxes got in his office. He said that he attempted two years before getting information from the Middle District of Georgia. Still, it took them six months to reply, and his request was denied.
So he was baffled as to why these boxes got in his office. And his words were, he said, ‘they came around Christmas, and it was the best Christmas gift I could get because I wanted to reopen this case.’ And I said, ‘well, sheriff, consider it a Merry Christmas from me to you,’ ” said Mr. Coleman.
Mr. Coleman also pointed out a third autopsy was performed, which supported the second autopsy findings.
It was also important that the case be reopened on the county level, he said.
“Now that it’s on the local level, the correct charges can be applied. There were three autopsies. The first one stated bogus positional asphyxiation. Now autopsies two and three state blunt force trauma as the cause of death. We know that when it closed in 2016 on the federal level, the feds stated the second autopsy was the most accurate.
The third autopsy did not exist then. The third autopsy supports the second, and both contradict the first. So we feel like it’s on the right level to get the correct charges applied,” Mr. Coleman continued.
“Every day, every second of the hour, you can wake up in the morning, like having a good day, but the least little thing, the little smell, or somebody walked by that looked like Kendrick, or somebody that you don’t know, just brings it up, his name,” said Kendrick’s mother in a Facebook video.
“It’s just your whole day is just ruined, and you can’t rectify it. It’s just all over with, you just in that depressed mood. You can’t come out of it,” Jaquelyn Johnson said in describing the pain of her son’s loss.
“I know it was murder. Like the stories that they gave us, there’s no way. And then by me knowing my child, there’s no way my son would try to wiggle into a mat that was 14 inches wide; his shoulders were 17 to 19 inches. So there’s no way that he can wiggle in there,” she said. “I know that my son was beaten to death and rolled up in the mat.”
As for the current investigation, Ms. Johnson said, “We want to know what happened to Kendrick, why nothing has been done and why nobody has been held accountable. Like, I always tell them they messed around and got the wrong family. Because we’re not going anywhere until we get down to the bottom of the truth and nothing but facts about what happened. It’s important because one, he was my child. He didn’t bother anybody. And two, Kendrick’s life mattered.”
She added, “He deserves justice. Kendrick was in one of the places that should have been the safest place for him. He was at school trying to get his education so he could go forward with his plans and goals for his life.”
Sheriff Paulk told The Final Call the process would take at least six months as there is much material to examine. He restated he is not accusing anyone of wrongdoing but wants to investigate all evidence to make sure nothing was missed. “I have always asked for these files. I wasn’t sheriff when this happened. The Johnson family and a lot of people in the community have questions and want the case looked into. I promised during my campaign that if I could get all the records, I would look into it.”
“We don’t feel like that’s happenstance,” said activist Marcus Coleman. “That is number 17 because that’s the number of short years that Kendrick had on this earth. So 17 years, his life was extinguished. And now the 17 boxes that ultimately launched the federal investigation will hopefully bring justice to his case.”