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Crime News Black Lives Matter

Kendrick Johnson's 2013 Gym Mat Death Was Accidental, New Probe Concludes

Seventeen-year-old Kendrick Johnson was found upside-down in a rolled-up gym mat in 2013. His family claims he was killed and the murder was covered up, but a new sheriff and federal authorities found otherwise after reopening the investigation.

By Megan Carpentier
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A Georgia sheriff has once again determined that a Black teenager's mysterious death at school was accidental, ending a year-long renewed investigation — but not the family's concerns.

Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk re-opened the investigation into the 2013 death of Kendrick Johnson last March after years of Johnson's family contending that the cause of his death had been falsified in order to cover up his alleged murder, CNN has reported.

Johnson was found upside down in a rolled up gym mat at Lowndes High School in Valdosta on Jan. 11, 2013. 

Paulk, who was not the sheriff at the time of Johnson's death, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week that he reopened the case last year because federal investigators would only release their investigatory files if the case was active. 

They then sent him 17 boxes of paperwork, including files from the Department of Justice, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, the D.C. Police Department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, his own department, the Valdosta-Lowndes County Crime Laboratory and the Lowndes County Coroner. In addition, he was able to review testimony from 58 witnesses, which had been presented to a grand jury, two autopsies conducted by a medical examiner contracted by the Johnson family and an autopsy conducted by the Air Force.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio was the agency that sent Paulk the files; they told NBC News that the Middle District of Georgia had been recused from the case "many years ago." In 2016, the Northern District Office announced that the federal investigation into Johnson's death had been closed as there was insufficient evidence to prove that a murder was committed.

Paulk's report concluded that the first autopsy, conducted in January 2013, was correct: Johnson likely died of positional asphyxia after reaching or climbing into the rolled-up gym mat in the corner of the gym to retrieve sneakers thought to have been left in the mat before the Christmas break and becoming stuck upside down with no way to move.

Kendrick Johnson Ap

But in that striking 16-page report (eight of which were pictures or models of the gym and mats where Johnson was found by classmates on Jan. 11, 2013), Paulk — who acknowledges that some people will nonetheless conclude there was foul play — noted several ethical problems with the U.S. Attorney for Middle District of Georgia's 2013 investigation. Among those ethical lapses he noted were: offering a witness "a financial inducement while giving testimony"; telling the FBI (which had concluded there was no foul play) not to interview a witness because it would interfere with the case they were building for murder; prejudicing witnesses by assuming that Johnson was murdered during all interviews; instructing a witness to lie during testimony; and one employee allegedly flirting with the Air Force medical examiner in order to get the independent autopsy report results changed.

Paulk's report also noted links between the U.S. Attorney's Office for Middle District of Georgia and Ebony magazine, which published a series of controversial pieces about the case, espousing the theory that two brothers, who attended the same high school and whom the Johnsons claim killed their son, were responsible for Johnson's death. The brothers, who are white, were lightly anonymized in those reports and their parents sued the magazine in federal court for defamation in 2014. They settled the case for $500,000 in 2020, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Paulk's report notes that the neither brother nor another boy accused by the family of being involved was seen on any of the security tapes with Johnson on the day of his death, and one brother was in another town for a wrestling meet at the time the camera show Johnson entering the gym where his body was found. Meanwhile, several students, a coach, and a relative of Johnson told investigators that it was common for some students to store their sneakers or other valuable possessions in the mats and then to tip the mats over to retrieve the items, and Johnson was one student known to do so. Others testified that there were more mats added to the front of the stack during the Christmas break, leading Paulk to suggest that the change had made it impossible for Johnson to retrieve his shoes via his normal method of tipping the mat over.

Johnson's family had contended that one of the brothers' motive was a fight with Johnson on a football team bus in 2011 — more then a year before his death — and a rumor that Johnson was involved with a girl over which the brother was jealous (though there was no such apparent relationship between Johnson and the girl). Paulk notes investigators dismissed both as potential motives — especially since other students testified there was no apparent lasting animosity after the 2011 incident.

The Johnsons have filed multiple wrongful death lawsuits in both state and federal court, all of which have either been withdrawn or dismissed — including one state suit in which the judge accused them and their lawyer of submitting false evidence, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Johnson's mother refuted Paulk's findings on Facebook.

"Y’all please know we’re not worried," she wrote, the Journal-Constitution reported. "We already knew Paulk was gone lie. We’re still pushing justice for Kendrick Johnson. We stand on Kendrick was murdered and it’s already done."

NBC News reported that Johnson's father also rejected the report, while wearing a T-shirt reading "Kendrick Johnson didn’t roll himself up into no mat."

"I will fight as long as I have to uncover what exactly happened to Kendrick Johnson," Kenneth Johnson said.