Written by: Stephen Cavallaro
Not often is Valdosta recognized by mainstream news outlets without quickly being shoved back under the covers.
The death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson has been an exception. While many will argue his death was a mere accident, others are convinced by the inconsistency of the investigation and the lack of cooperation from city officials that murder lurks beneath the shadows.
On Jan. 11, Johnson’s body was discovered lodged in a rolled-up gym mat in the Lowndes High School gym.
Only four days later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department were convinced that the incident was an accident. Yet, the evidence just did not add up. Further investigation was necessary, and on Jan. 19, the Johnson family, while filled with many unanswered questions, had to put their son to rest.
So they sought support within the community. During the next few months, community protests and demonstrations flourished across the city, bringing in a substantial amount of support for the “Justice for Kendrick Johnson” cause. Students across the VSU campus encouraged their peers to sign petitions, and there was even a visit from civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
The Johnsons demonstrated that whether answers exist yet or not, when the people demand them they will be sought after despite struggles from law enforcement. The response generated by the community struck fear and hope across the city. At this point city officials no longer needed to act, the case was going to continue thanks to the people.
On May 2, the results of an autopsy conducted by the GBI and Sheriff’s Department were released, confirming the department’s initial notion. Still, the incident had gained momentum, becoming nationally recognized.
In mid-May, CNN appeared as a beacon of light for both the Johnson family and the cause. CNN came to Valdosta and questioned county officials and aired segments discussing the faults with guests. The reporting revealed the inconsistency of the incident and spawned questions relevant to the first investigation.
CNN exposed that the local coroner was not contacted until six hours after the death and that the body had been moved. Later CNN would state the coroner pled for a retraction. And in June, Johnson’s body was removed from his grave in order to undergo a second autopsy provided by his parents. The results of this autopsy, released in September, revealed that the death was due to blunt force trauma.
Then it was reported that during the second autopsy Johnson’s organs were missing from his body, and the funeral home refused to answer questions. An interview with the Sheriff, Chris Prine, led to no new information but to more unanswered questions.
CNN turned a local death into a national conundrum. One could even consider CNN’s efforts to expose the incident as a means of creating the second coming of the Zimmerman-Martin escapades. Whatever the intent of the infamous news outlet was, Johnson was bound for justice.
Soon the case was brought to the courts, and the community demanded that the school system release the taped footage from the security cameras located in the gym. While the defense claimed the tapes were inaccessible without the consent of all students on the tape, the case continued.
In mid-October the footage was released, revealing that Johnson was not alone when he entered the gym that day of his death. A new investigator would begin reviewing the case: federal attorney Michael Moore.
Whether the death of Kendrick Johnson was invoked accidentally or by another force is unknown, and the age-old saying “only time will tell” does not appear to apply to this situation. As time goes on more and more questions rise, and there may never be enough known evidence to form answers.
The lack of support generated by local officials invoked the people, who were lost and desperate, to take to the streets. A peaceful-revolution-turned-federal-investigation brought the hope and comfort the Johnson family and supporters longed for in their time of need.
Here at the Spectator we hope that Kendrick’s parents find peace and that no more lives are harmed by the extent to which such an incident can inflate.