The Tragic Death of Kendrick Johnson
September 8, 2013 4:14 PM   Subscribe

A high school athlete's bizarre death in Georgia raises questions among his family and other members of their community.

A second autopsy bolsters the Johnson family's suspicions that Kendrick's death was the result of foul play.
Jackie and Kenneth Johnson have been seeking a new inquiry into the January death of their 17-year-old son.

Here is a timeline of the events in question.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm (43 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember hearing about this a few months ago.

What I remember hearing was that a teen was found HEAD FIRST rolled up in some gym mats. The authorities AND school were quick to say it was a "tragic accident". Everything about it screamed "foul play" except for the fact that EVERYONE was quick to say "tragic accident".

I mean how does a high school kid just die that way without anyone knowing about it.

Oh yeah. Its The South.

The South is a beautiful place filled with great culture...but its also filled with administrators and authorities who remind me of the kind of people who thought that a black man was only 3/5ths of a person.

So yeah. I hope something is done about this so that administrators and people in power don't get to brush stuff like this under the rug.

My condolences to the family.

.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:23 PM on September 8, 2013 [10 favorites]


Reading this has broken my heart. I hope him and his family get the answers they deserve and peace. This can't be anything but foul play and a cover up.
posted by Sweetmag at 4:43 PM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Read this earlier today. So sad. I hope his family finds peace, preferably through justice.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:50 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is very weird, until you realize, it's the South and the victim is a young, Black male. :(
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:53 PM on September 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


The more I read about it, the more I came to think that it may just have been an accident.

For one thing, as the pastor in the Grantland article pointed out, there would have to be an unbelievably large number of people involved in the conspiracy if this were a cover-up.
Also, there have never been any possible suspects or motives provided by the people who think this was foul play, even though whatever did happen to Kendrick would've occurred in daylight, during school hours, in a gym that seems to be heavily frequented (it was used later that day for basketball practice, and later that night for color guard practice).
It seems very possible that he did just fall into the mat when reaching for something (a shoe, a dollar, a piece of candy?), and then proceeded to panic and suffocate in a rapid fashion.

It also seems possible that his family, as bereaved families are wont to do, are having a difficult time processing the loss of their beloved son, especially in such a senseless, preventable way as falling into a cheerleading mat. And thus the Johnsons are trying to make sense of it, and searching for closure or solace by keeping a vigil for their son and seeking deeper than is due for a reason for his tragic demise.

When you compound their bereavement and the senselessness of the accident with the unprofessional way the Sheriff's Office seems to have handled the case (not calling for the coroner for six hours; not properly storing the body or handling evidence), it makes sense that any family might call into question the official narrative, and seek out a narrative that made more sense to them.

Regardless: it is a tragedy.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 5:05 PM on September 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


Apparently healthy people drop dead all the time for a million reasons, like they tripped on a shoe and bashed their head, had a previously unknown heart problem, drank too much cough syrup, had their first ever epileptic fit and fell into a pile of stuff, etc etc etc. There is insufficient information here to work out what happened, which is often the case.
posted by w0mbat at 5:33 PM on September 8, 2013


How many healthy high school students die each year from falling into rolled up cheerleading mats? This seems like an incredibly strange, implausible death.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 5:41 PM on September 8, 2013 [10 favorites]


its also filled with administrators and authorities who remind me of the kind of people who thought that a black man was only 3/5ths of a person.

Let's not forget the administrators, authorities and others who put school athletics above all else, which would tend to cancel-out the foregone presumption of racial prejudice.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:43 PM on September 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yet when the Johnsons looked at Kendrick's body, they believed they saw more than just superficial abrasions. A photo taken after the autopsy showed that their once-handsome boy was now barely recognizable. His skin was darker, his lips were swollen, and his head appeared misshapen like a balloon about to burst. The Johnsons posted the photo on Facebook and printed it to paste on signs. "Look," they would tell friends and strangers. "Look what someone did to our son."

Decompositional change can often alarm those not inducted into the forensic sciences.

What happened in this case is inexcusable. Not only was there a delay in reporting the case to the coroner, the decedent's personal belongings were lost during transport. These are huge mistakes, that only heighten the mistrust between the public and public institutions.

Other things I'd wonder about are a toxicology report.

Positional asphyxia is a strange diagnosis to make in an otherwise healthy adolescent boy. Typical cases of positional asphyxiation include intoxicated people who collapse in such a way that the airway is obstructed or when a baby gets wedged between the bed and the wall in unsafe sleeping arrangements.

"Undetermined" would have been the prudent diagnosis from the start.
posted by Renoroc at 5:48 PM on September 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


Decompositional change can often alarm those not inducted into the forensic sciences.

This is why I felt that the image of Kendrick's posthumous face, which his parents have affixed to signs, was not a reliable indicator that there was trauma prior to his death. First of all, the photo was taken after the autopsy; secondly, I'm certain most laypeople have not seen a dead body before, or at least not a decomposing cadaver- and most uninitiated people would not know what post-mortem processes are capable of doing to one's appearance.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 6:05 PM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is it even possible for good news to happen in Georgia?! And I'm mired in the muckiest part of it.
posted by JHarris at 6:10 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Apparently healthy people drop dead all the time for a million reasons, like they tripped on a shoe and bashed their head, had a previously unknown heart problem, drank too much cough syrup, had their first ever epileptic fit and fell into a pile of stuff, etc etc etc. There is insufficient information here to work out what happened, which is often the case.

"People just die! Who knows the reason, ???it is a mystery???"
posted by JHarris at 6:13 PM on September 8, 2013 [12 favorites]


I assume the police in the area are not the brightest bulbs on the christmas tree and investigate every case fairly badly. You need more than "schoolboy drops dead at school" or "unconscious person chokes on vomit" to hang a good conspiracy on, I'm afraid.
posted by w0mbat at 6:13 PM on September 8, 2013


Unless the vomit choked upon...was not the victim's!
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 6:18 PM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, they can't really dust for vomit.
posted by thelonius at 6:21 PM on September 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


Sorry, but it sounds like a case of asphyxiation. Guy dives head first into a rolled-up mat and can't get back out. Humans will die if held upside-down for too long. It's not for me to say if the investigation was bungled, but foul play seems unlikely.
posted by Uncle Grumpy at 7:10 PM on September 8, 2013


I think it's hard not to say the investigation was bungled, given the amount of time between when they found the body and when they called the coroner, and given that the personal effects weren't all returned to the family.
posted by johnofjack at 7:18 PM on September 8, 2013


3/5ths of a person

Not to pick nits, but the antebellum South didn't give blacks the right to vote at all. Blacks were counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of determining representation in the House of Representatives. If they had been counted as a whole person, the political influence of blacks at that time would have increased not at all, while the political influence of their oppressors would have increased considerably.
posted by rustcrumb at 7:20 PM on September 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


Well, this thread has been a pretty good indicator of what percentage of posters actually bother to read the links.
posted by Benjy at 7:27 PM on September 8, 2013 [14 favorites]


Whoa, hold on a minute. This link has something to do with some sort of event that happened in "the South?"

Why bother reading the article and posting a knowledgeable comment? Shitting on "the South" will get more favorites, right?
posted by Old Man McKay at 7:49 PM on September 8, 2013 [10 favorites]


Benjy, I'm not sure if you're referring to me (probably not--I am paranoid, yes), but I read the links. The Valdosta Daily Times' timeline is superficially appealing, but the official story stinks. One part that sticks out to me is the line that they delayed notifying the coroner for six hours because they were worried about a leak. Seriously? In a high school with hundreds of potential witnesses, most of them teens? Had Prine ever met a teenager before that day? Okay, so he's also saying there was nothing the coroner could do until they could get to the body. Well, so what? The law says you call the coroner, so you call the goddam coroner, and then he gets paid to sit there twiddling his thumbs or playing Candy Crush or whatever.

Which is not to say that it's a conspiracy, because I think the pastor has a good point about the sheer number of people who'd have to be involved, all of them risking their careers. I just think it's concerning that the police officers broke the law, and that the explanation on why they broke the law is stupid, and that the body wasn't stored at the proper temperature and, as mentioned, that the personal effects were lost/misplaced/destroyed/whatever. So yeah. I would say the investigation was bungled.
posted by johnofjack at 7:58 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Southern black kid. One too many weird ass things going on.

Usually there are a good many people involved in a coverup. Some of them inadvertently, working in good faith on information provided by others with an agenda. Often a motive isn't found until after a significant investigation is opened.


Decompositional change can often alarm those not inducted into the forensic sciences.

Very true, however, one would think that an independent autopsy presumably done by someone who is an expert witness would not be released with these findings:

... Johnson died as the result of "unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma." This report contradicts findings of the initial autopsy...

The family's attorney, Chevene King, has sent the independent autopsy report to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the U.S . Attorney for Georgia's Middle District and Lowndes County Coroner for review.


With four independent agencies involved, I would imagine there will be a very through review of the second autopsy prior to determining if the case needs to be reopened.

Given the utterly asinine way the original investigation was handled, IMO this deserves reopening the case with through investigation by a competent, unbiased group of trustworthy law officials using proper methods if only to highlight the incompetence, laziness, or lack of training and proper procedures in the local jurisdiction. If there is even a smidgeon of a doubt brought up in the second autopsy, it damn well better be investigated.

Then we can rule out murder.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:58 PM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just how would one go about lifting an unconscious (or worse, struggling) body up in order to dump it head-first into a rolled up gym mat?

Unfortunately, murder investigations get botched all the damn time. For the officers on the scene, there's a good chance this was a career first for most of them, so knowing that "the law says to call the coroner immediately" might not have been common knowledge. Evidence gets mishandled, rules aren't followed (or are flat-out broken) lots and lots of times through sheer carelessness or absent-mindedness, nothing more. (look at how many holes were poked in the Nicole Brown murder investigation, even though they had the right guy!)

The authorities constructed a perfectly plausible scenario, and although there are some weird, even unexplainable aspects to it, nothing says "this was clearly murder." Many of the "strange" circumstances can be easily addressed with some critical thinking. How KJ's 19" shoulders managed to fit into a 14" diameter hole, for example. Given his weight, it seems perfectly plausible that the mat simply flexed or elongated slightly, making the opening oblong as his body slid into it, then returned to its normal shape.

Really tragic series of events, but I feel really sorry for the parents searching for more answers or justice, because I don't think they're going to get much satisfaction.
posted by ShutterBun at 9:59 PM on September 8, 2013


Alonzo T. Calm: "Decompositional change can often alarm those not inducted into the forensic sciences.

This is why I felt that the image of Kendrick's posthumous face, which his parents have affixed to signs, was not a reliable indicator that there was trauma prior to his death. First of all, the photo was taken after the autopsy; secondly, I'm certain most laypeople have not seen a dead body before, or at least not a decomposing cadaver- and most uninitiated people would not know what post-mortem processes are capable of doing to one's appearance.
"

Well, if I am reading this correctly, he was found upside down, right? This means a large amount of blood/fluid rushing to his head. Once he passed away, the blood congealing in an area with that much fluid would, I suspect, cause some pretty major facial distortion, no?
posted by Samizdata at 10:00 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, if I am reading this correctly, he was found upside down, right?

Exactly. Another fact that I don't think his parents may be taking into account. But aside from that, he was presumably dissected during the autopsy. I don't know if that typically involves..."interfering" with the facial region, but that might also be a reason that Kendrick's face was so distorted in the post-mortem shot.

Maybe someone else more qualified to comment on this could tell us: Might livor mortis or rigor mortis have a disfiguring effect on the face? And particularly if the decedent was suspended upside-down for a prolonged period?
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 10:17 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm no such expert, but I'd guess that, yeah, hanging upside-down while dead for 24 hours or so is going to play all kinds of havoc with one's appearance. Bruises and facial lacerations seem like pretty likely consequences of struggling to free yourself from being trapped in a tube. Certainly more plausible than being beaten beyond recognition in a school gym by invisible assailants, with other students just yards away, during school hours. That's why they're called freak accidents. Freaky stuff happens.

Still, nothing but sympathy and understanding for the parents, because when something like this happens, especially with such a bizarre and random explanation, "I do not accept this" is a perfectly understandable response. Unfortunately, I suspect they're incorrect, and I must say I didn't really care for the way the original article kinda implied that had all the earmarks of a case of "no justice for racial minorities" during the middle segment of the article.

I'll hedge my bets though, by saying that it would be very helpful to see the surveillance videos, and get a definitive statement along the lines of "nobody else went in or out of the building at this time"etc.
posted by ShutterBun at 1:17 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Whether or not Kendrick was murdered, the tragedy is that institutional racism is a part of the history of America. The history of that town SPECIFICALLY is such that suggesting a murder and coverup took place is not unbelievable. And the authorities have systematically failed enough times that there's just no way to prove this was an accident.

My condolences to the family. I can't imagine what they're going through.
posted by dubold at 1:51 AM on September 9, 2013


the authorities have systematically failed enough times that there's just no way to prove this was an accident.

If that's the way you think (which is understandable) then you're likely in for more disappointment.

The hypothetical murder is what must be proved, and there's scant evidence of that, even given the most generous interpretations. Blunt force trauma to the face? Unless we have a suspect/suspicious circumstance, it's just as easy to conclude that when he fell through the "tube," his face hit the gym floor and was injured.

Suspicion of authorities is reasonable and justified, but there has to be more than simply "an history of corruption/incompetence" to warrant tons of extra investigation.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:07 AM on September 9, 2013


If that's the way you think

I should have been more specific - It's not about what I, Random Internet Commenter, think - it's about what Kendrick's family and friends think.
posted by dubold at 2:31 AM on September 9, 2013


I've not commented much, except for a couple of gags. Reading the description now, though, it is... odd. Dying in a rolled-up cheerleader mat, stacked in the corner of the room, head down? Like he fell into it, vertically, into the tube, trying to retrieve shoes? Foul play certainly should not be ruled out here.

Some things are missing from the article. Coroners can generally tell if a body has been moved since death. Does the coroner report actually support Johnson having died head-down? As it points out, the mat is as tall as he is, reaching down into it is foolish.

Of course people do foolish things all the time, and sometimes they die from them. But this is a particularly weird way to go, and in such a way that his body would be so neatly hidden afterward. And the many instances of strange behavior from the authorities in dealing with this are a matter for concern. There is almost certainly something else going on here. It might be a cover-up of something else, like an accidental death due to negligence, or maybe there was a fight that turned unexpectedly lethal, where someone is being protected. It might even be understandable, in a way -- a friendly sparring between two guys where someone slips, hits his head on the hard gym floor, and dies? That could be the end of two people's lives there, instead of just one.

It is all very strange.
posted by JHarris at 2:49 AM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]




The part I don't understand is the video. Why not let the parents or their lawyer see the video? Or just tell them what is in it?

And the clothing from the cadaver. Giving people back their personal effects is pretty common, and with two cadavers, how did they lose only the boy's clothing?

And I often think less in grand conspiracies and more in combinations of individual decisions and mistakes that wittingly and unwittingly combine into the truth being obscured. Perhaps those police don't know the appropriate procedure for a crime is to release The body to a family member, but it doesn't seem as if the police are too curious or transparent about small things either, like double checking that the blood was the girls, or sharing the video, or finding out what happened to the clothing. .

I'm not saying it wasn't an accident, but Why would a five ten guy think he could get to the bottom of a seven foot rolled up mat? Into one, sure, but how would he get out? He just reached and reached and then fell in, possibly somehow hitting the bottom with his head to show blunt force trauma and then choked to death, all while in an empty gym? That just seems a wilder explanation than a fight and foul play. Hopefully another set of eyes can look at the evidence, and maybe just ask the kids who hid their shoes there where they usually hid them and how they got to them. Because that just is odd.
posted by anitanita at 3:03 AM on September 9, 2013


Exactly. A conspiracy to murder the kid seems laughable, even given the South's history of racism. (Why this kid, who seems like a decent enough sort? Why not some other sports star African-American student?) But an accident that people are covering up, maybe one caused by some student, perhaps.

The turtling up by all the authorities connected with the case, though, is rather infuriating. After hearing all that, I wouldn't blame Johnson's family being suspicious at all.
posted by JHarris at 4:25 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do they even know for sure that the mat was fully rolled when found? From what I read, the coach ran over and saw the feet and tipped the whole thing over, causing the body to "tumble out." Maybe that 14" fully-rolled hole in the mat had come unrolled and become 19". Even if it was banded somehow, if the body was able to tumble out and not held tightly, then surely it was able to tumble in?
posted by IndigoRain at 4:33 AM on September 9, 2013


A wrestling mat never struck me as something you could fall into. They aren't like snap bracelets. It takes at least one person to roll up one of those mats. They're quite thick ad heavy.

That plus the anonymous blood on the wall, and I am a suspicious Internet justice commenter.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:53 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Apparently healthy people drop dead all the time for a million reasons,

"There must be something magic, down in those holding cells.
There's stuff that happens that just don't happen nowhere else.
Healthy people dying from a sudden heart attack.
Men who hang themselves with their hands tied behind their back."


Just the idea of tripping and falling into a mat, far enough down to become invisible but not far enough down to hit the ground (because then he fell 7 feet onto the floor and nothing about that shows up on the first autopsy?), in the middle of the school day seems ...implausible. Not impossible. But really friggin' weird. A pretty serious investigation to rule out other things makes sense. Which wasn't really done.
posted by Lemurrhea at 6:27 AM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wow, what an unbelievably botched investigation, even if Johnson's death was purely accidental. (Losing the young man's clothes? Really?) Which probably goes far to explain much of the stonewalling around the case -- at the very least I'm sure there are many official actors, from school authorities to law enforcement, working hard to cover their respective tails against accusations of their own incompetence. Sadly, this CYA instinct naturally hinders both the investigation into this young man's peculiar death and any perception of good faith among his loved ones and their supporters.

In addition to several points mentioned above, one piece of information the story lacked, since the police refused to comment, was whether any or all of the other students supposedly seen in the video -- who were cited as a reason not to release it in the first place -- were even questioned. Whether they were, and what they said, seems like it'd be a key piece of information. And once again you have a dilemma -- the authorities may have a legitimate concern in sharing the identities of everyone in the video, but by withholding that information they also prevent any kind of independent investigation.

What a tragedy, and what a mess.
posted by Gelatin at 6:42 AM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not to pick nits, but the antebellum South didn't give blacks the right to vote at all. Blacks were counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of determining representation in the House of Representatives. If they had been counted as a whole person, the political influence of blacks at that time would have increased not at all, while the political influence of their oppressors would have increased considerably.

If blacks were counted as whole people rather than a fraction, it would have made a hell of a lot of difference in the minds of black AND white people.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:10 AM on September 9, 2013


If blacks were counted as whole people rather than a fraction, it would have made a hell of a lot of difference in the minds of black AND white people.

The Three-Fifths Compromise had nothing to do with rights for slaves or how slaves had to be treated or how slaves were thought of by literally anyone except politicians from states with lots of slaves, and the only effect that counting a slave as three fifths of a person had was to increase the amount of federal tax money that was delegated to states where lots of slaves were owned and to increase the number of seats that those states received in the House of Representatives. And then, since they had more votes in Congress and having lots of slaves was financially beneficial to them, they were both capable of legally protecting slavery and compelled to do everything possible to increase the amount of slavery practiced in their state. Had the slaves been counted as a whole person, the only effects would have been an increase in the value of slavery in the politicians' eyes and an increase in the political power of slavers.

The best outcome for everybody who didn't own slaves--including slaves themselves--was for the slaves to not be counted as a person at all for the purposes that the Three-Fifths Compromise was concerned with. Slaves were being treated as 3/5s of a person solely for the purpose of giving political power to slaveowners while still being treated as 0/5s of a person in every other way, and that's what the post you quoted is taking issue with. Basically, rustcrumb was saying don't get upset because "Blacks were treated as 3/5s of a person in the South!", because that's not even true. Get upset because blacks were treated as far less than that but Southern politicians were still able to engage in the doublespeak of treating them as partial constituents to increase their own political power.
posted by IAmUnaware at 12:04 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the thing that people forget about the 3/5ths Compromise is that the slaveholding states wanted their slaves to count as whole persons and the other states wanted the slaves to count as no persons for the purposes of determining representation. Put another way, if representation were assigned according solely to the voting-eligible population, the South would have had little to no political power in the new government at all, but would also have been taxed out of proportion to their representation. If representation was afforded in direct correlation to the taxed population, the South would have had an overwhelming political power despite standing for relatively few voters. In a very real sense, the perverse and abhorrent mechanism of slavery meant that counting black slaves as "whole persons" would have been entirely to their own detriment. It's super fucked up to think about.
posted by Errant at 1:58 PM on September 9, 2013


So Kendrick goes into the gym, then "shortly after" other kids come into the gym and...?

How much shortly after was "shortly after"? You have quite a number of kids who avoid the locker fees by storing their shoes in that spot and no one else had gone into that area between 1:09 PM and 10:00 AM the next day? With all the gym classes and practices going on? What did the other kids who'd been in the gym say? None of them saw him? He fell between those mats that quickly? Was he known to skip classes enough that his absence from his next class was not an issue?

Even if it was a terrible misjudgment/accident and he was asphyxiated by slipping into the mats, no one in the gym saw anything? This is just weird.
posted by droplet at 2:27 PM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


For one thing, as the pastor in the Grantland article pointed out, there would have to be an unbelievably large number of people involved in the conspiracy if this were a cover-up.

This could still be murder without a classic racial crime cover-up:

- Kendrick is murdered in the gym, rolled up in the mat, and left there.
- The authorities, through laziness and incompetence, decide it was an accident, do no investigation, and foul up several procedural elements.
- If anyone involved had any doubts, they didn't have influence, and the whole thing was being wrapped up pretty quickly.
- If any of the officials still have doubts, they're not about to stick their neck out at this point.

So perhaps the southern racist legacy here has dulled into simple indifference and failure to follow-through when a young black man dies.

Murder: possibly.
Racism: subtle, but yes.
Cover-up: of incompetence, yes.
Conspiracy: perhaps not.
posted by General Tonic at 5:53 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is outrageous to me even if I believe it was an accident. You do these things by the book — calling the coroner promptly, allowing next-of-kin to ID the body, delivering the personal effects — because these things must be perceived as above-board. This is what the police are for.

If these fuck-ups are happening because of sloppiness, it sends the message that this kid's death is less important than other deaths. If they're happening because someone messed up an early procedural thing and are now trying to cover their asses, then they've come out of this looking guiltier than if they'd just admitted their mistake.
posted by savetheclocktower at 6:39 PM on September 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


.

I went to this high school (graduated in '09), and I'd just like to add that:

1) The local cops have a history of destroying evidence to protect the Good Ol' Boys' Club (sorry for the weak citation; I can't find much on the case), and:

2) The area where the body was found ("the old gym") is a particularly run-down section of the school; it's mostly been replaced by "the new gym", and people kind of assumed that the old one was on its way to demolition. If there was a legitimate accident, it's possible that it was the result of some kind of failure to keep things up to code, and that the school is acting so shady in a desperate attempt to avoid getting sued.
posted by revi at 9:39 PM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


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