The mysterious death of a black high school wrestler in 2013 is the subject of Finding Kendrick Johnson – a new documentary to be released on Friday – and the boy’s family hopes its release could lead to people with Information come forward.

The body of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was found in a wrestling mat in the gym of Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. His death has been classified as accidental asphyxiation by state and local law enforcement officials, including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who said the teen accidentally caused his own death by dipping into a rolled-up mat to retrieve his sneakers.

Gravitas films

Kendrick’s family and supporters across the country were outraged by the results of the investigation and even had his body exhumed twice for independent examination. His mother, Jacquelyn Johnson, told NBC News Thursday that she and her family continue to “fight for justice. My son’s life was important. “

In March, a local sheriff reopened the Kendrick case. “I’m grateful that the case has been reopened,” said Johnson, “but I don’t feel like anything is being done.

Documentary filmmaker Jason Pollock has been investigating Kendrick’s death since 2017. The Johnsons and Pollock said they wanted the documentary to inspire anyone with information to speak up.

“Because it’s the deep south, there is white silence on one side and fear of retaliation on the black side,” said Pollock.

Kendrick’s classmates Brian and Branden Bell, who are white, were identified as persons of interest through an FBI investigation into the case, according to Valdosta Today. Her father, Rick Bell, was an FBI agent who eventually quit his job after his home was searched and evidence sought. The brothers were never charged, and FBI video analysis revealed they were in different areas of the school when Kendrick entered the gym.

The film, distributed by Gravitas Ventures, will be shown in selected cinemas and will be available on demand from July 30th. Actor Hill Harper is executive producer and director Malcolm D. Lee is producer. Actress Jenifer Lewis is an executive producer and narrator of the film, which features news footage, historical videos, in-depth interviews with parents, family, friends and investigators, and animations that bring to life the vibrancy of those who were close to Kendrick.

It also shows a united Johnson family – strong parents in Jacquelyn and her husband Kenneth, caring children and relatives – who remain heartbroken but defiant after losing their “shining light”.

But the alleged revelations in the film are significant. Pollock, who also directed the 2017 documentary “Stranger Fruit” about Michael Brown, a black teenager who was fatally shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, has worked on “nothing else for the past four years,” he said. “Just Kendrick Johnson.”

After years of research, Pollock claims that Kendrick’s death was not an accident and a cover-up occurred. “I don’t know who killed Kendrick Johnson,” he said. “But his death wasn’t an accident.”

Jacquelyn Johnson, the mother of Kendrick, while filming the documentary.Jason Pollock

During the investigation, the Bell brothers insisted they had not seen Kendrick on the day of his death. But that afternoon Pollock discovered school supplies that the FBI had received from Kendrick and Brian about four feet apart at school. Additionally, the FBI noted their proximity in its report: “Kendrick Johnson is being watched in a covered corridor moving towards the camera. Bell is being observed at the same location at this point in time. “

“And yet no one was told,” said Pollock. The Bell brothers had said several times that they hadn’t seen Kendrick that day, including in a 2015 interview with Atlanta TV broadcaster WSB.

When asked by a reporter if he had anything to do with Kendrick’s death, Brian said, “No. He was one of my good friends. ”Branden added,“ Me and my brother were innocent and always will be. ”

Their report, Pollock and the Johnsons said, was the predominant narrative in Valdosta.

Mitch Credle, a veteran murder detective in Washington, DC, was hired to lead the investigation after several local officials withdrew. He said he felt from the start that there was “a cover-up” after meeting the coroner. According to Credle, the coroner had ruled the accidental death almost immediately when evidence did not support that assessment.

A family member looks at a photo of Kendrick as a youth soccer player. Jason Pollock

Credle also cited missing evidence and suspicious circumstances, such as the fact that Kendrick, who was 1.70 m tall and 19 ”wide shoulders, was found in a mat that the FBI said was 14” wide.

Pollock also said he found surveillance camera footage of the gym – where Kendrick’s body was found – that was previously missing. It was not handed over to the authorities.

“Mitch Credle is a brave man to whistleblow,” said Pollock. “We wanted to blur his face, but he was against it. He wanted to stand up for what is right. ”

The family later exhumed Kendrick’s body and hired an independent coroner, Dr. William R. Anderson for further testing. The coroner’s original report ruled the cause of death to be accidental asphyxiation. But when that happens, fluid builds up in the lungs and the lungs weigh up to 10 times more than they normally do, Anderson said.

“But Kendrick’s lungs were out of fluid,” he said. “That was the first red flag. He didn’t die of suffocation. “

After a second exhumation of Kendrick’s body, Anderson ran molecular tests that revealed blood smears that showed the teen died from a blunt violent trauma. Those findings, said Anderson, Pollock, and the Johnson family, have been ignored by Georgia law enforcement. So Anderson sent the slides to other pathologists who came to the same conclusions.

Kendrick Johnson’s mother, Jacquelyn Johnson, visits her son’s grave.Jason Pollock

In the end, Credle said, “We let them down. We must not abandon families. “

Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson insist that their campaign for justice for their son will not be completed until it is done. They chose to show pictures of his battered face on posters and flyers they distributed while searching for witnesses, as Emmett Till’s mother did in the infamous 1955 Mississippi case, to shed light on the violence that had befallen him.

“If this were a dead white boy and a black person of interest, it would have been resolved in two months eight years ago,” Pollock said. “Kendrick represents so much, and his story represents so much more than this case. I just saw this documentary about waves. A large wave is created because of the depth under the wave. I believe the KJ canyon is so deep in the consciousness of Black America. And when they see the truth, a wave will be different from anything we’ve seen before. ”

“So his story represents so much more than just the terrible facts of the case. There is also a mirror in America right now. ”

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