Parents of a Georgia teenager who officials said was found dead in a wrestling gym mat have long said their son was murdered. Now, about 10 years later, they’re filing a $1 billion federal lawsuit against the local sheriff’s office and state investigators for naming the cause of the teen’s death as an accident.
In 2013, 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was found dead inside a large, rolled gym mat at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, officials said.
Local and state investigators said his death was caused by “accidental asphyxiation” when he went to grab a tennis shoe from the top of the mat. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice also closed in 2016 when federal investigators “found insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges,” according to a DOJ news release at the time.
The case was reopened in 2021 by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office when 17 boxes of documents were unsealed following a federal investigation, McClatchy News previously reported. The sheriff’s office would later rule the death an accident again.
“It’s painful, it’s hurtful, it’s a shame that we have been having to fight for 10 and a half long years, and nobody seems to care about Kendrick,” Jackie Johnson, Kendrick’s mother, told a group of local reporters outside a federal building in Atlanta on Tuesday, Sept. 19, according to video posted by WALB.
The teen’s parents, Kenneth Johnson and Jackie Johnson, have filed several lawsuits in the past, WALB reported. They have previously said Kendrick was murdered by two white classmates, McClatchy News reported. Kendrick was Black.
The family also appeared in a 2021 documentary “Finding Kendrick Johnson” that investigates the teen’s death, according to McClatchy News.
“As I always tell them, they killed the wrong child but they got the right parents,” Jackie Johnson said in the WALB video. “Because we’re going to continue to keep fighting for Kendrick.”
The Johnson family is asking for $1 billion in compensatory and punitive damages regarding what their lawsuit calls a “deprivation of rights and conspiracy to interfere with rights.” The lawsuit also requests a jury trial for the federal case.
The lawsuit is filed against the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, which both played major roles in investigating the nature of Kendrick’s death. Both agencies are said to have conspired together to cover up how Kendrick died, according to the lawsuit. The family says there are different “inconsistencies” in their investigation, according to the lawsuit.
In the lawsuit, the naming of Kendrick’s death as accidental was called a “farce,” a “masquerade of an investigation” and a “physically impossible narrative.”
“The GBI Medical Examiner’s Office conducted a thorough autopsy on this case. The case is closed, and we stand behind our original findings,” Nelly Miles, GBI Office of Public & Governmental Affairs director, told McClatchy News in an email.
The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office did not return McClatchy News’ request for comment.
Among the complaints listed in the lawsuit, one of the first to be named was the sheriff’s office and GBI’s denial of giving Kendrick’s parents their right to a “timely and accurate death certificate” for their son. The lawsuit also cites the findings of an independent forensic expert who said Kendrick died of blunt force injuries.
Background on the case is also described in the lawsuit. When the teen, who is referred to as “KJ” in the lawsuit, was found in the gym mat, he was in “a pool of blood,” according to the lawsuit. He also had cuts on his face and hands, the lawsuit says.
While funeral arrangements were made for Kendrick, his brain and organs were missing from his body following his autopsy and caused concern, the lawsuit says.
In regard to the closing of the second investigation by the sheriff’s office, the lawsuit says a diagram depicting Kendrick’s fall labeled the gym mat as having a 14-inch opening. Kendrick’s shoulder width was 19 inches, according to the lawsuit.
His ability to climb up the gym mat, which was 6 feet tall, to retrieve a tennis shoe was also doubted in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says both agencies “invented a fabricated materially false narrative” as part of a cover-up. As a result, Kendrick’s parents experienced “damage to their public reputation, physical and mental well-being,” according to the lawsuit, as well as “racial bigotry and harassment.”
Valdosta is about 70 miles northeast of Tallahassee, Florida.