Five years after his death, Kendrick Johnson’s parents want his body exhumed a second time.
Their request is on hold after a judge granted a 30-day restraining order — effective until Jan. 27 — filed by the city of Valdosta, which owns the cemetery where Johnson is buried.
Johnson, a 17-year-old sophomore at the time, was discovered on Jan. 11, 2013, in a gymnasium on the Lowndes High School campus. State and local investigators concluded he died from positional asphyxia after he got stuck in a vertically stacked gym mat, presumably reaching for a pair of sneakers.
Kendrick's parents, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, never accepted the official finding. A Florida-based pathologist they hired concluded Kendrick was killed by blunt-force trauma, a conclusion that has informed multiple lawsuits.
The Johnsons allege their son was murdered by Brian and Branden Bell, sons of a local FBI agent, and the crime was covered up with the help of Lowndes County’s school superintendent and a former sheriff. Last August, Lowndes Superior Court Judge Richard Porter ordered Kenneth and Jackie Johnson to pay nearly $300,000 in attorney fees.
"Their testimony shows they had no evidence to support their claims that the Bells killed Johnson or that any of the other defendants engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the cause of manner of Johnson's death, " Porter wrote.
In their request for the temporary restraining order, Valdosta city officials said they do not object to the exhumation but, as defendants in the Johnsons’ civil lawsuit, want to observe any further examination of the body.
“This order is necessary as (Chevene King, the Johnsons’ attorney) has stated his intentions to refuse to permit anyone representing the defendants to be present with the body during disinterment, reinterment, testing and/or examination,” the request states.
In 2016, the Justice Department concluded there was "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."
FBI video analysis determined the Bell brothers were nowhere near the old gymnasium when Johnson was last seen entering the facility.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.