His nickname was "K.J." He had a young, handsome face, soft brown eyes and a ready smile. A football and basketball player, his friends described him as a quiet sort and family would tell you that he loved to make people laugh.
But for Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, the laughter died on January 11, 2013 when their beloved son, 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson, turned up mysteriously dead. He was found inside a rolled up wrestling mat at Lowndes County High School in Valdosta, Georgia.
Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine claimed it was an accident, that Kendrick accidentally dropped his shoe into the mat, fell in while trying to retrieve it and suffocated to death. The Johnson family had trouble with that explanation. Others did too, including the county's coroner.
In his official report of Kendrick's death, under the "Person Found Dead" box, Lowndes County Coroner W.M. "Bill" Watson's noted, "Was never told who or when this body was found." Then, under "Description of Circumstances," Watson gets critical.
"I was not notifedi n [sic] this death until 15:45 hours [3;45 PM]. The investigative climate was very poor to worse when I arrived on the scene. The body had been noticeably moved. The scene had been compromised and there was no cooperation from law enforcement at the scene. Furthermore, the integrity of the evidence bag was comprimised [sic] on January 13, 2013 by opening the sealed bag and exhibiting the dead body to his father."
"Cause of Death" and "Manner of Death" were both pending autopsy results. The latter refers to what caused the victim to die—that is, was he beaten, stabbed, shot, or as Sheriff Prine claims, suffocated. The former speaks to how the victim died, such as internal injuries, heart failure or oxygen deprivation.
Under the box "Medical Examiner Name," instead of simply inserting his name, Watson wrote, "Paramedics responding to 911 call 01-10-13, time unknown I will Subpoena this report [sic]."
Watson concluded in the "Comments" section:
"I do not approve of the manner this case was handled. Not only was the scene compromised, the body was moved. The integrrety [sic] was breached by opening a sealed body bag, information necessary for my lawful investigation was withheld."
Such criticism by a sitting coroner, aimed at the investigating body, in this case the Lowdnes County Sheriff's Department, is unprecedented, unless of course the coroner suspects something is very wrong. Watson's comments and criticisms raises some key questions:
- Who made the "911" call and at what time did the paramedics arrive?
- Why did it then take approximately five to six hours for the sheriff to notify the coroner of a suspicious death?
- Why did law enforcement allow the crime scene to be as the coroner said "compromised," thus destroying important evidence that could have possibly pointed to the perpetrators?
- Why didn't law enforcement cooperate with the coroner?
- Who moved Kendrick Johnson's body and why?
- Why was the sealed body bag opened, thus compromising the chain of custody?
That is why identification of a victim is usually done from a distance, with the body displayed to the family member, who is making the identification, sometimes through glass. As to the other questions, at present they remain unanswered.
Venue next shifted to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the state police agency. The autopsy at their Dry Branch, Georgia laboratory began at 9:40 AM on January 14, 2013. It was conducted by Dr. Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft.
Dr. Gaffney-Kraft notes the following on the first page of her report:
"Cause of Death: Positional Asphyxia."
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, positional asphyxia is, "a fatal condition arising because of the adoption of particular body positions, causing mechanical interference with pulmonary ventilation."
In other words, a person is placed into a position where they cannot breathe. This condition, "Can occur in various circumstances that are likely to come under the observation of the specialist in legal medicine (work, car accidents, torture, kidnapping, etc.)...The diagnosis of positional asphyxia is essentially based on 3 criteria: the body position must obstruct normal gas exchange [breathing], it must be impossible to move to another position, and other causes of natural or violent death must be excluded."
On the first page of her report, under "Pathologic Diagnoses," Dr. Gaffney-Kraft immediately ruled out "violent death." She writes:
"Congestive-decomposition changes of the head, neck, torso and upper extremities."
According to the pathologist, Kendrick's face was not injured. His face was distorted due to decomposition. The pathologist then writes, "No significant injuries identified." Yet later in the report, she seemingly contradicts herself.