Case #4: Kendrick Johnson

This case is one that truly touched my soul. It is, in my opinion, a prime example of the disparity that exists in this country (and many others) between the way we fight for justice for some victims, and not for others. This is a case completely overtaken by cruelty, racism, ignorance, and inhumanity. Learn Kendrick’s story. Don’t forget it. Don’t let anyone else forget it, either. Don’t let this horrific crime go swept under the rug, and don’t let the people in power who let it happen remain unaccountable. The very, very least the Johnson family deserves is justice, and they still don’t even have that. The very, very least any of us can do to help is to spread Kendrick’s story, and make people just as furious and disgusted as we are.

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In January of 2013, Kendrick Johnson was 17 years old, and had just returned back to high school after the winter vacation. On the evening of January 10th, his mother was at their home, waiting for her son to come back from school. She knew he would be later than normal, because he had told her we was going to see a basketball game later in the afternoon. But as the night goes on, Kendrick doesn’t come home. It gets later and later, until Kendrick’s mother finally goes to sleep, expecting to see her son in the morning. But when she wakes up the next day and realizes Kendrick had never come home, she panics.

Kendrick’s mother drives to her son’s high school, thinking that if he had spent the entire night out with friends, maybe he would have just went straight to school without stopping home first. When she arrives, staff at the school tell her that not only has her son not shown up to school today, but that he was marked absent in his last two classes the day before. As Kendrick’s mother sits in the main office, trying to decide what to do, someone comes in with horrific news. Kendrick had been found, they told her, and he was still on the school’s campus. His dead body had been discovered, rolled up within an exercise mat, in one of the school’s gymnasiums.

The gym Kendrick was found in was referred to by the school as the “old gym”, so named because it was older and smaller than the other, main gym. On the morning of the 11th, students were hanging out in the old gym before class when they saw something strange. Over in the corner with the gym mats, which had been rolled up and arranged vertically, they saw something white sticking out from the top of one of them. When they looked closer, they realized they were looking at a sock—a sock that was being worn on a foot. The students called out, but when no one answered, they went and got a member of the staff. When police arrived on the scene, they uncovered Kendrick Johnson’s dead body from the inside of the mat.

That same day, the 11th of January, the sheriff of Lowndes County, Georgia, made an announcement concerning the discovery. He told the public that Kendrick Johnson had tragically died of “positional asphyxiation”. This term refers to a cause of death that occurs when one is in a position that so constricts one’s airways and blood flow that eventually, they stop breathing entirely. It’s an uncommon diagnosis, and typically is only applied in cases where virtually every other possibility has been logically ruled out. For it be to applied here, so soon after the body had been found, was highly unusual.

The sheriff told the public that this is how Kendrick’s death occurred: Kendrick, having a fitness class in the gym on the day of the 10th, went to the gym to grab his sneakers, which he kept rolled in one of the many mats to avoid paying for a gym locker. When he arrived, the sheriff said, he saw that the gym mats had been arranged upright, and that subsequently his sneakers had fallen to the bottom of one of the mats. Kendrick then, according to this story, must have tried to fit himself inside the mat, head first, in order to reach the shoes. Kendrick became stuck, unable to move, and, the sheriff concluded, after hanging upside down for a period of time, was suffocated by this positional asphyxiation. It was, the police said, a terrible and tragic accident.

From the very beginning, the Johnson family has not believed this version of events as told by the Lowndes County Police. There’s simply too many inconsistencies and implausibilities, and too much evidence to the contrary, for any rational person to accept this as the full and final story. Something, from the very day this case began, was going on to obstruct justice from being carried out.

Let’s dive into the plethora of reasoning we have to give us serious doubt concerning the sheriff’s take on things. To start, many have pointed to the fact that it seems incredibly unlikely Kendrick could perform the activities that led to his death without anyone noticing. On the afternoon of the 10th, when Kendrick supposedly went to get his sneakers, there was a group a students in the old gym playing a game of basketball. A photo of that gym is shown below.

The gym where Kendrick’s body was found. Credit: http://www.re-newsit.com/p/kendrick-johnson-cas.html

As you can see, the gym is fairly small, and the basketball court is pretty close to the stack of mats. How could no one, not a single person, remember seeing or hearing anything that day? Is it even possible that Kendrick could have climbed inside a gym mat without anyone seeing? Is it possible that he made no noise at all, while he was suffocating to death?

Other ammunition for the Johnson family against the police were the records and photographs they managed to get after their son’s death. It was these records, and the photos specifically, that helped the family gather a support system: they posted the pictures online, urging people to look and see for themselves that something was very wrong here. And people did, because what these pictures showed was undeniable.

One of the photos the family posted is actually so brutal that I thought it wasn’t right to include it within this post, without any available trigger warnings. If you would like to see the photo, you can here, towards the middle of the page. The photo is a side-by-side: one picture of Kendrick, alive, next to a picture of his body after the autopsy. The two faces are unrecognizable. Kendrick’s face is swollen to the point of almost inhuman features, and his lips and eyes are horrifically disfigured. (It is important to note: in this photo taken after the autopsy, the skin on Kendrick’s face does appear more disfigured than it was when his body was first discovered. That is due to a process done during the autopsy where the skin of the face is pulled down to inspect the brain.) The family pointed to this as evidence of some sort of foul play. There was no way Kendrick could have gotten those brutal injuries from simply hanging upside down.

Once the seeds of doubt had been planted by these photos, the Johnson family and others began questioning other aspects of the police’s story. The gym mat Kendrick was found in, for example, had, while rolled up, an opening that was 14 inches in diameter. Kendrick Johnson’s shoulders were 19 inches across—5 more than the width of the opening. Would it have been even physically possible for him to get himself into the mat? His father doesn’t believe so. The photo below shows his using his own body, the same size as Kendrick’s, to demonstrate the difficulty of being able to push himself through the mat’s opening.

Others, such as the Lowndes County police, say that Kendrick could have gotten in by putting one arm above his head and the other arm down by his waist, making himself slim enough to crawl down. The position of Kendrick’s arms when he was found, as you can see in the picture above, does seem to support that.

But… there’s more.

When Kendrick’s body was discovered, the shoes that he had been wearing that day (not the sneakers he was trying to reach) were laying next to him, touching the backs of his knees. A picture of Kendrick in the mat is below.

The positioning of the shoes here seems incredibly strange. First of all, why are the shoes off of Kendrick’s feet at all? It’s possible that he could have taken them off to better get his body into the mat. But, if he did that, why on earth, and HOW on earth, would his shoes have ended up like that, neatly arranged in the space between his knees and the mat? Wouldn’t they have been found on the floor, or the bleachers, if he had kicked them off before entering the mat? And even if they somehow fell off his feet while he was in there—how would they have landed in that perfect position? This is another piece of evidence, for people who believe Kendrick was murdered, that there had to have been another person involved here. Someone must have placed those shoes beside Kendrick’s body.

Now, let’s look at the other shoes in this case: the sneakers Kendrick was reaching for. When Kendrick’s body was recovered, there was a pool of blood at the bottom of the mat, which was associated with Kendrick’s positional asphyxiation: once the blood had all rushed to his head, it began to leak from his nose and mouth. However, this sneaker that Kendrick had been reaching for was found on top of the blood stains, as shown below. No blood was found on the shoe itself.

This is just another strange and seemingly unexplainable aspect of this case. If Kendrick had truly gotten stuck while trying to reach the shoe, the shoe should be covered in blood, because it was below Kendrick, and his face would have been directly above it. Even if Kendrick managed to pick up the shoe, and then got stuck, one would expect that, even if he dropped it during or after his death, his blood would still have stained it at some point.

What most people consider to be the most compelling piece of evidence is the school’s security video footage, or lack of it. Kendrick’s high school was equipped with lots of cameras, but to this day, there is no video footage of any of the events of Kendrick’s death that day. The camera with a view of the gym mats was out of focus, and picked up essentially nothing. The other camera in the gym were motion detected, meaning that it wouldn’t start recording until someone or something came close enough, which also provides a slightly spotty timeline. When CNN eventually obtained the footage, they were able to determine that the video recordings they’d been given had not been edited or altered. (There were inconsistencies within the time stamps on several videos, but, CNN explained, that was due to each camera being programmed to a different server, none of which were synced). However, they did note that there was over an hour of footage missing.

The previous points are all sort of the highlights (so to speak), the most damning pieces of evidence that suggest this was more than an accident. But there’s even more that the Johnson family and their supporters point to as proof that the investigation of their son’s death was either criminally negligent and ignorant or maliciously bumbled. The initial assumption by Lowndes County police that Kendrick’s death was an accident seemed to dictate the tone of the investigation from the very start, impeding basic procedures and protocol. When the crime scene was looked at, police discovered a smear of blood on another wall of the gym, along with similar stains on some paper towels in the girl’s bathroom. For whatever reason, after testing the blood samples and finding none of them to be a match for Kendrick’s DNA, the samples were essentially discarded and forgotten about. No further tests were done to compare the samples to anyone else in the school or even saved for future testing. The same goes for the majority of the evidence recovered at the scene: nearly all of it was thrown away, making it impossible to go back now and test against current information. A gray sweatshirt that was found in the opposite corner of the gym Kendrick was found in (it’s labeled as “gray sweatshirt” in the photo of the gym that’s included above) was never collected and never tested. Even the shoes, the crux of the entire case, were not saved for evidence.

Due to the hard work of the Johnson family, Kendrick’s case managed to gain enough notoriety around the area to catch the attention of Michael Moore, the Attorney General of Georgia at the time. When Moore heard the circumstances surrounding Kendrick’s death, he reopened the case and launched his own investigation.

Part of Moore’s investigation involved getting approval to exhume Kendrick’s body and perform a second autopsy, a request that he was granted. When the medical examiner performs a second autopsy on Kendrick’s body, he is shocked to discover that all of Kendrick’s internal organs are… not in his body. All of his vital organs, including his brain, had been removed, and replaced by crumpled up newspaper.

Shocking, but not entirely unheard of. Medical examiners do sometimes remove the organs of dead victims, particularly in controversial cases, if they believe the organs may need to be saved for future testing. And, for a while, it was a fairly common practice to replace the organs with newspaper (though, in 2013, it was much more usual to use cotton). The funeral home that processed Kendrick’s body was ultimately cleared of any suspicious or criminal intent—it’s believed that since the company offered to bury Kendrick for no cost to the family, the newspaper may have been a way to save money. However, the problem lies here: Kendrick’s organs haven’t been found. When the funeral home received Kendrick’s body, they did sign a form saying that they had received everything that was supposed to be there. The two theories here are either that the funeral home misplaced, threw out, or lost the organs, or that the form was signed before the company actually went in to confirm everything. Similarly, the funeral home also indicated with their signature that they were in possession of the clothes Kendrick was wearing when his body was discovered—but, weirdly enough, all of that evidence is now lost as well.

That same autopsy also revealed a bruise on Kendrick’s neck that the medical examiner insisted was evidence of blunt-force trauma. Below is an excerpt from a copy of the second autopsy report. As you can see, the cause of death is categorized as “apparent non-accidental blunt force trauma”.

Credit: http://valdosta.sgaonline.com/2010vdt/pdfs/KJohnson_second_autopsy.pdf

In 2016, Kendrick’s case had stalled. Georgia AG Michael Moore dropped the Johnson family as clients as closed his investigation. A federal review of the case once again ruled that Kendrick’s death was accidental, and the US Department of Justice also concluded that there was no sufficient evidence to prove any federal criminal charges. However, there was one more incident that would once again bring Kendrick’s case back into the public view—in fact, into the worldwide, international public view. The group Anonymous, described by Wikipedia as a “decentralized international activist/hacktivist collective/movement that is widely known for its various cyber attacks against several governments, government institutions and government agencies, corporations, and the Church of Scientology”, published a video on the internet that combed over the case and issued a call to action to the public to make sure this case was not allowed to be swept under the rug. They call out the Lowndes County police department and Kendrick Johnson’s high school, claiming that they purposely orchestrated a cover-up of Kendrick’s death motivated by racism and a desire to protect the town’s reputation. A copy of the video is linked below.

Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmXf-U2PiLo&feature=emb_logo

The video was provocative and intense, and directly threatened the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department. It spurred a ton of media attention and an onslaught of online discussions. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Kendrick’s case currently remains closed. The Johnson family is continuing to fight in any way they possibly can, but without representation or even an open investigation, it seems that for now, all they can do is wait.

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