Parents Fight To Reopen Case After Questioning Son's Death

Georgia teen Kendrick Johnson was found dead in a wrestling mat at school earlier this year. Authorities ruled it an accident but his parents and neighbors think there was foul play. For more, host Michel Martin speaks with reporter Fred Rosen.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later today, we'll talk about eating healthy, which many people find hard to do, especially on a limited budget or in neighborhoods where food offerings are limited. We will hear from a hip-hop artist who says those are just excuses; you can, quote, "eat good on a hood budget,"unquote. That conversation is just ahead.

But first, to a disturbing story that you might have heard something about - and this is probably a good time to tell you that some of the details are unsettling. The story's about a 17-year-old named Kendrick Johnson, who was found dead, rolled up in a gym mat at his high school in Valdosta, Ga., back in January. Now, after his body was discovered, the local sheriff's department ruled the death an accident, suggesting that he got trapped in the mat and suffocated after he dove in to get a shoe. But Kendrick Johnson's parents do not buy that explanation. They want the case reopened. Here's a clip from Kenneth Johnson talking to reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

KENNETH JOHNSON: We know that it was going to be this hard because this is Lowndes County. Lowndes County, they ain't used to families fighting against them. And whatever it take, how long it'll take, we're here. We're going to stay.

MARTIN: Now the family has conducted their own autopsy - or hired someone to conduct an autopsy that revealed evidence that challenges the official account. We wanted to learn more about this so we've called Fred Rosen. He's a crime writer and reporter, and he's written extensively about this case for a Ebony.com. Fred Rosen, thanks so much for joining us.

FRED ROSEN: My pleasure, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I do want to mention that we reached out to the sheriff's department for a statement and they declined to comment or to join our conversation. Now the authorities ruled that Kendrick Johnson's death was accidental. Briefly, could you just tell us how they came to that conclusion?

ROSEN: Well, they came to the conclusion immediately before they even had any forensic evidence of this. They announced it within two days. At that point, the autopsy had not even been made - none of the public had gotten any information about it. And really there was very little information coming out to begin with.

MARTIN: OK, but what did they say? Why did they say they came to that conclusion?

ROSEN: Right. What they said was that Kendrick Johnson was trying to retrieve a shoe in a wrestling mat, fell in and died from what's called positional asphyxia, meaning he wasn't able to breathe because of the position he was in. He was trapped and he suffocated to death.

MARTIN: Why would his shoes have been in a wrestling mat? Why would he have done that?

ROSEN: Well, that's part of the story. In fact, my article this week is exactly about that, which is that that story first starts when the police actually interview two people who have been identified already as suspects by private investigator Beau Webster, who's been working for the Johnson family since February.

MARTIN: OK. Well, so anyway, I think it's important to mention that a lot of people have raised questions about the handling of this case. In fact, even the coroner for the county raised questions about the way the crime scene was handled saying that the crime scene had been heavily compromised. It hadn't been secured at all. That the coroner wasn't even called until five hours after police arrived on the scene.

ROSEN: That's right.

MARTIN: And a number of issues in ways the scene was tampered with. Why do the parents - why are the parents so skeptical of the official explanation?

ROSEN: Well, because of the fact that what's occurred is that in order for this to be true, it means that Kendrick Johnson's lungs would have to have weighed a lot more than normal because they fill with fluid when you die from this thing called positional asphyxia, but, in fact, the autopsy report shows that his lungs weighed the normal weight, which means he could not have died that way.

MARTIN: And what does the second autopsy show. As we mentioned, that they retained their own individual to conduct a second autopsy. What does that show?

ROSEN: It shows that the way he died, the way that KJ died, which is what his family called him, the way he died was by a severe blow to his neck, which caused his heart to stop, and that's how he died.

MARTIN: Why would the - is there some sort of background relationship with law enforcement there that would cause them to want to overlook a crime against a teenager? It seems to me that if a teenager died in my local high school, as the police, you would think they would be very interested if someone - if there were foul play involved. So is there some background here that we should know about, about why - is there a history of tension between the African-American community and the police there or the sheriff's department there that's relevant here?

ROSEN: That's putting it mildly. There's a tremendous amount of racial tension in Valdosta, Georgia. The African-American community does not believe - what I might term the white establishment's explanation of this crime and probably with good reason, based on the forensics. Plus the fact that we've already identified suspects in this case. And that's...

MARTIN: Is the belief there - the family - that this is deliberate or is this incompetence, that they simply did not have the technical skill to address this matter properly? Or do they believe this was deliberate?

ROSEN: Absolutely deliberate. Absolutely deliberate. It's disgusting quite frankly.

MARTIN: What's the next step here? What is the next step here? And they've asked for coroner's inquest, if the coroner reclassifies this as a homicide then what will happen next? Are there outside authorities who could be brought in to investigate? What is the next step here?

ROSEN: I'll cut right through it. There won't be any coroner's inquest because the coroner is under - he has been - the inside word is he's been under a tremendous amount of pressure, OK. The point here is this, the next step is that the United States attorney, Michael J. Moore, for the Middle District of Georgia, he is going to make a decision whether to open an investigation. He's been reviewing the case - the case files for the last few months. And he told me that he will be opening an official investigation sooner rather than later.

MARTIN: OK. All right, well, thank you so much for this update. Fred Rosen is a true crime writer. He's been reporting on the Kendrick Johnson case for Ebony.com. This case has received national attention. And he was kind enough to join us from his home office in Kingston, New York. Fred Rosen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROSEN: Thank you and I hope that - to come on again and I have a book proposal that's been sent in.

MARTIN: OK. All right, well, thank you. That's very - we appreciate knowing about that. And please keep us up to date. Thank you so much for joining us.

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