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A second local investigation into the death of a Georgia teen found in a rolled-up gym mat has closed with no charges filed


By Victor Blackwell and Devon M. Sayers, CNN

A second local investigation into the 2013 death of Kendrick Johnson, the Georgia teenager who was found dead in a rolled-up gym mat, has been closed with no charges filed, according to a report released by Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk.

Paulk called the teenager’s death a “weird accident,” telling CNN, “there is nothing to substantiate a homicide.”

“Nothing criminal happened,” he added.

The body of 17-year-old Johnson was found upside down in a mat in Lowndes County High School in January 2013. Months after his death, Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office investigators ruled it was an accident and closed the case. Lowndes County is in southern Georgia.

That initial investigation concluded that Johnson accidentally slipped into the center of the mat while reaching for a shoe and got stuck. An autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined the cause of Johnson’s death was accidental positional asphyxia.

But inconsistencies in official reports on the condition of Kendrick’s body and other discrepancies led the family and community to question the official cause of his death. Johnson’s parents have said they think their son was killed.

An autopsy conducted by a pathologist who was hired by Johnson’s family determined that the cause of death was “unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt-force trauma” to the neck.

The next investigation was a federal one. The Justice Department announced in October 2013 it was opening an investigation into the case — and in 2016 said it was closing the case, saying it had found “insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges.”

“After extensive investigation into this tragic event, federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson’s civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime,” it said in a statement.

Paulk, who was not part of the sheriff’s office at the time of Johnson’s death, requested the evidence gathered during the federal probe in April 2019 as part of his re-examination of the case, but federal investigators initially declined his request.

Eventually, after a November 2020 visit by the Johnson family with federal investigators, that request was granted and the Justice Department turned over its investigative material to the sheriff’s office.

That material included grand jury testimony, results from an autopsy conducted by federal authorities and additional digital evidence.

The sheriff said he spent 15 months reading “every page” in that file, but found that they did not show “any criminal action whatsoever.”

The teen’s parents say they are not convinced.

“We have not had faith in Lowndes County. We knew what the outcome would be from the very beginning,” Kendrick’s father, Kenneth Johnson, told CNN. “You can’t do an investigation with the same investigators who covered it up. They’re not going to uncover something that they covered up.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” he added.

“I am quite sure that there will still be a contingent that will believe there was foul play,” the sheriff wrote in the report. “I encourage everyone to study ALL the evidence in this file before forming an opinion.”

CNN has not independently inspected all the evidence that the sheriff reviewed.

In a statement to CNN, the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia said, “the final conclusion in the Kendrick Johnson investigation was reached and announced in 2016 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio (USAO NDOH), which handled the matter. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia was recused from the investigation many years ago.”

The US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio declined to comment.

The Johnson family spoke Thursday in front of the sheriff’s department, criticizing the report released Wednesday. “Do not believe anything that this sheriff’s department tells you, Kenneth Johnson said. “I will fight as long as I have to, to uncover what happened to Kendrick Johnson.”

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