— VALDOSTA, Ga. — The bizarre death of a teenager inside a high school gymnasium has unleashed torrents of controversy in this South Georgia community, where the teen's parents and supporters claim authorities are covering up a murder.
Kendrick Lamar Johnson, 17, was found dead in an old gymnasium on the Lowndes High School campus the morning of Friday, Jan. 11. His body was upside down, wedged inside a roll of gym mats.
The day Johnson was found, the Lowndes County Sheriff's office said it believed no one else was involved in his death. The state medical examiner released a report this past Thursday confirming the death was an accident.
Investigators say Johnson, a sophomore athlete, was alone in the gym and probably reached for a loose shoe when he fell into the rolled up mat and got stuck. Investigators said he died from asphyxiation caused by being suspended upside down.
Johnson's parents say they believe otherwise. His family and their supporters have staked out downtown street corners, waving posters with an image of the teen's post-mortem face, as well as signs with slogans such as, "Honk Your Horn for KJ" and "Justice for Kendrick." The Rev. Al Sharpton is scheduled to speak at a local church Saturday to draw attention to calls for a new investigation.
"I want the people to know that my son was murdered at Lowndes High School, and we will not stop until we have justice," Jacquelyn Johnson said during a downtown rally last month. "We'll be out here every day until someone gives us some answers and the people responsible are behind bars."
Johnson was black - as are nearly a quarter of the 3,000 students at Lowndes High - but one of his aunts said race has nothing to do with this case.
"This is not a racial thing. It's not about black, and it's not about white. It's about justice. We want justice" said Tesha Tooley. "Even if it happened to a white child, we'd be out here supporting that white family. … My sister sent her child to school to get an education, not to be murdered.
The involvement of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and its medical examiner have not allayed the family's concerns. A lawyer working with the family says the state's work is shrouded by doubt.
C.B. King, a civil rights lawyer in Albany, Ga., questions the fact Johnson's body was clothed when taken to the medical examiner's regional office in Macon but unclothed when returned to the family. King said when he asked the GBI, "they acknowledged that they didn't know where his clothes were."
Other controversy stems from Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson, who has publicly complained that Sheriff Chris Prine didn't call him to the scene when Johnson's body was first discovered.
Then there's the grisly photo of Johnson's face, itself, which has appeared throughout Valdosta in the weeks since the teen died. Johnson's father has said the photo confirms his suspicions his son was murdered because the trauma and uneven swelling suggest something else happened to the teen besides being stuck in the gym mats.
The fact the photo was made public suggests a security breach in the investigation, though Prine has defended his office's protection of the body until it was delivered to the state medical examiner. The family won't say how it got the photo.
Prine said the investigation into Johnson's death involved various forensic tests, including on DNA samples taken from the gym, as well as interviews with more than 100 students, teachers and others.
"I don't know where they got the picture," Prine said last month. "The photo should not have been taken and presented like it was, because it leaves the citizens and family in doubt due to how awful he looked. It was a horrible death, whether it was an accident or murder. My prayers go out to the family. We've done everything we know to do."
Details for this story were reported by the Valdosta, Ga., Daily Times.