Georgia teenager was stuffed with newspaper after his death, family lawyer says

Kendrick Johnson

The parents of a Georgia teenager whose body was found in a rolled-up wrestling mat at school said Thursday they have new reason to believe investigators covered up evidence of a crime: Their son was buried without his internal organs.

The body of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was found in southern Georgia on January 11. Lowndes County Sheriff's investigators concluded he died in a bizarre accident when he fell headfirst onto a mat and became trapped inside. But Johnson's family believes he was killed and is pressuring authorities to re-investigate the case.

The teenager's family announced Thursday that the Florida attorney who fought to prosecute Trayvon Martin's shooting has now joined the effort to reopen the investigation into Johnson's death. His parents also said that when Johnson's body was exhumed for a second autopsy over the summer, the private pathologist found his organs were missing and the body cavity had been filled with newspaper.

“I am outraged that they stuffed my son's body with newspaper,” said Jaquelyn Johnson.

Benjamin Crump, the attorney who helped draw national attention to Martin's 2012 death when he was shot by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, said the discovery raised questions about why Johnson's organs were missing and could not be examined in the follow-up autopsy requested by the family.

“If you think about it logically, it seems like some kind of conspiracy to hide the truth about what happened to Kendrick and who did this to him,” Crump said.

School officials found Johnson's body in the gym after his parents reported him missing the night before, stuck upside down in the middle of a wrestling mat that had been rolled up and placed upright behind the bleachers.

Sheriff Chris Prine has said he suspects Johnson became trapped while trying to retrieve a shoe that had fallen into the middle of the large, rolled-up mat. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner concluded Johnson died of positional asphyxia, meaning his body was trapped in a position where he could not breathe.

But in May, a judge agreed to exhume the body, and Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson hired Dr. William R. Anderson for a second opinion. The private pathologist submitted a four-page report on August 15, saying he found bleeding on the right side of Johnson's neck. He concluded that the teenager died from blunt force trauma near his carotid artery and that the fatal blow did not appear to be an accident.

Johnson's family said Anderson also revealed that most of his internal organs were missing and the body cavity was filled with newspaper.

GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang said Thursday that the agency's policy is to return all organs to bodies after an autopsy. That's what happened in Johnson's case, she said.

“These organs were in the body when we sent it back to the funeral home,” Lang said, adding that the GBI stands by the conclusions of its autopsy, which found no foul play.

But Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson said many of Johnson's organs were too decomposed to be preserved and should have been disposed of before the body was sent to the funeral home. “That would have happened during or immediately after the autopsy,” he said.

Harrington Funeral Home in Valdosta, which handled Johnson's body, referred calls to attorney Roy Copeland. He said Johnson's organs were missing when the body arrived at Harrington. He also said it was common practice during embalming to fill empty spaces in body cavities with material such as sawdust or cotton.

“Is newspaper necessarily more accusatory than sawdust or cotton?” Copeland said.

During forensic autopsies, medical examiners often remove internal organs. After the autopsy, those organs are usually sealed in a plastic bag and placed back inside the body, says Vernie Fountain, who runs an embalming school in Springfield, Missouri. When organs are missing, such as in organ donors, the space in the body cavity is often filled with an absorbent, preservative powder, Fountain says. Sometimes cotton wool with powder is used.

“I don't think I've ever talked to anyone who told me they used old newspapers,” Fountain said. “Maybe there's no law prohibiting it. I don't know. But it just doesn't meet what I would call acceptable standards.”

The Georgia Secretary of State's office, which regulates funeral homes in the state, is investigating the handling of Johnson's body, spokesman Jared Thomas said.

Meanwhile, Johnson's parents are preparing a lawsuit asking a judge to order an inquest into their son's death, said Chevene King, an attorney working with the family. An inquest would present the evidence of Johnson's death in a public hearing, similar to a trial. Johnson's parents hope the result would be to change the manner of death listed on his death certificate from accident to homicide — clearing the way for a criminal investigation to reopen.

“This can happen to any of our children,” said Kenneth Johnson, the teenager's father. “We just can't allow this to happen over and over again.”

Johnson's family asked the Justice Department to get involved, saying authorities did not thoroughly investigate Johnson's death because he was black. But the Justice Department did not find enough evidence to warrant an investigation. U.S. Attorney Michael Moore in Macon is monitoring the case but has not announced whether he will take further action. Moore did not immediately respond to a phone message Thursday.

Watson said he reviewed the second autopsy report on Johnson but found it vague and lacking details about the GBI's findings.

“I'm terribly sorry for the family,” Watson said. “But I don't think bringing up all this Cain down here is going to bring them any closure.”