CNHI News Service
VALDOSTA, Ga. — The family of a teenager found dead in a high school gymnasium wants a judge to force an official investigation into his mysterious death.
Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, whose 17-year-old son, Kendrick, was found dead at Lowndes High School in January, are asking a Superior Court judge to force the local coroner to open an inquest.
The Johnsons have directly asked Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson to investigate. But Watson has said an inquest would be pointless because a state medical examiner has ruled the boy's death was accidental, which means there is an established cause and are no suspects. The county sheriff has also determined the teen's death was an accident.
The Johnsons filed a petition in a Lowndes County court on Tuesday, asking a judge to intervene.
“Whatever it takes, however long it takes, we’ll be there," Kenneth Johnson said during a press conference with his wife, attorneys, family members and supporters.
Controversy has surrounded Kendrick Johnson's death since he was found wedged inside a roll of gym mats, suspended upside down, on Jan. 11. Officials say he was alone at the time and was probably reaching for a loose shoe when he fell, then became trapped and died of asphyxia.
But his family never accepted that story and has staged public demonstrations calling for an investigation. Their cause has received national attention, including from the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton, who visited Valdosta to lend support.
The Johnsons petitioned to exhume the teen's body and hired a pathologist to perform a second autopsy. That doctor concluded the boy's death was the result of "unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt-force trauma."
“Mr. Watson has a duty to conduct an inquest whenever there is an unsettled issue regarding the cause and manner of death,” attorney Chevene King said during Tuesday's press conference.
“In this instance, we believe that based upon the two autopsy reports, which conflicted, that he has a duty to convene a hearing whereby jurors can decide whether Kendrick Johnson died as the result of an accident or whether it was the result of a homicide," said King.
During an inquest, the coroner could subpoena witnesses and examine evidence in front of a six-person jury. That jury would then deliberate and deliver a verdict as to the cause and manner of death. Though not a criminal trial, the inquest's findings would be public.
The family also wants access to surveillance video from the gymnasium.
“If the sheriff’s investigation is correct, if he climbed into that wrestling mat, we will see it with our own eyes," said King. "But if that is not the case, as we suspect it is not, then we will see that."
Stuart Taylor writes for the Valdosta, Ga., Daily Times.