U.S. attorney reviewing investigation into Valdosta teen’s death seeks school hard drives

The U.S. attorney reviewing the investigation into the mysterious death of a Valdosta high school student has subpoenaed the original surveillance videos of the gym where the teen’s body was found.

Copies of the videos were released to the parents of Kendrick Johnson last month but the more than 1,900 hours of footage shed no new light on their son’s death, ruled an accident by the Lowndes County Sheriff. Lawyers for the Johnsons — who believe their son was murdered — claim the tapes were doctored, and last week’s move by federal prosecutor Michael Moore may serve to fuel talk of a cover-up.

Seventeen-year-old Kendrick Johnson’s body was found in a rolled-up gym mat on January 11. An autopsy supervised by state chief medical examiner Kris Sperry concluded Johnson suffocated after getting stuck reaching into the upright mat for a shoe, a finding Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson refuse to accept.

The Johnsons successfully sued to get the copies, which the Lowndes sheriff said disclosed no new information about their son’s death and might violate the privacy of students. Kendrick is seen entering the gym around lunchtime on Jan. 10 and is later spotted briefly jogging. Authorities said he is not seen again on the tapes until the next day, when his body was carried out by the coroner.

“Obviously (Moore) found something suspicious about the videotapes,” the family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday. He has sued to get access to the hard drives.

Moore opened the federal review in October and has been reviewing the same tapes released to the Johnsons. A spokesman for his office declined comment Monday.

“The biggest thing is that the one camera out of 36 cameras which we were given tape of is blurry and all the others are vivid and clear,” Crump said, adding there appears to be missing minutes from the footage that can’t be accounted for.

The Lowndes sheriff’s office insists the raw footage released to the Johnsons was unedited.

While the U.S. attorney has withheld comment, others involved in the case have been critical of how the investigation was handled.

A report recently surfaced in which Lowndes coroner Bill Watson blasted the investigative climate as “very poor.”

“The body had been moved. The scene had been compromised and there was no cooperation from law enforcement at the scene,” Watson wrote.

Several Atlanta-based civil rights activists are planning a rally in Valdosta next month to commemorate the anniversary of Johnson’s death and press for further investigation. Locallly, however, the president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Southern Christian Leadership Conference and former president of Valdosta’s NAACP say they don’t believe there’s been a cover-up.