Kendrick Johnson case is closed, but Valdosta’s wounds are still open

Protestors chant during a “Who Killed K.J.” rally for Kendrick Johnson in front of the Georgia State Capitol in December 2013. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Protestors chant during a “Who Killed K.J.” rally for Kendrick Johnson in front of the Georgia State Capitol in December 2013. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM

UPDATE: The parents of Kendrick Johnson may have to pay the legal fees of defendants named in a wrongful death lawsuit, which the couple withdrew in March. Kenneth and Jackie Johnson had accused two brothers, Brian and Branden Bell, of killing their son, though the U.S. Department of Justice found no foul play in Kendrick's death.

She could handle the tasteless ridicule, such as the time a former colleague tweeted a photo of her with a pig’s face. But then someone threatened to kill her 12-year-old daughter, and Leigh Touchton blanketed the perimeter of her home with security cameras and wished she could get out of Valdosta.

In four terms as the first white person to lead a Georgia chapters of the NAACP, Touchton never backed down from a fight. She lost her job as a biology professor at Valdosta State University after arguing for a living wage for campus workers. She even went to jail protesting the lack of public spaces named in honor prominent African-Americans.

Now, a woman who spent much of her life trying to bridge the racial divide has fallen into it. The mysterious death of Kendrick Johnson, the popular teenager whose body was found in a rolled-up gym mat at school, has burned almost everyone who has touched it. And it has exposed the racial faultlines just beneath the surface in Valdosta: old wounds, old hatreds, old suspicions, all fed by new media.

The Lowndes County sheriff, the GBI and the state medical examiner have all concluded that Kendrick's death was an accident. Last week, after a nearly three-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice announced 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."

But Facebook and Twitter will keep the Johnson case open long after local, state and federal authorities have declared it closed.

In Valdosta, reputations have been sullied. Mistrust magnified. Friendships ended.

Leigh Touchton was asked by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to look into Kendrick’s death. When she concluded that it was an accident, she became the enemy to many people who were once allies.

The battle has gotten the best of her.

“I want to leave,” she said. “There’s no security for me here.”

‘We know he was murdered’

To Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, Kendrick's parents, it seems any evidence that doesn't support their murder theory is further evidence of a cover-up. The Justice Department, according to the family and their supporters, has now joined the conspiracy, one intended to protect two sons of an FBI agent targeted by federal prosecutors and accused, in a civil suit filed by the Johnsons, of murdering Kendrick.

“The DOJ never said KJ wasn’t murdered they just said (they) didn’t have enough evidence,” Jackie Johnson wrote on her Facebook page following last week’s meeting with federal prosecutors.

In a press conference outside the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Johnsons said they were told an autopsy they commissioned — one that concluded Kendrick died from blunt force trauma — was accurate.

“We know he was murdered, and they all but came out and said they thought he was murdered but nothing could be done about it,” Jackie Johnson told reporters.

Family spokesman Marcus Coleman told The Associated Press, “According to Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, verbatim: The first pathologist got it wrong.”

If true, that would contradict two additional autopsies conducted at the behest of federal investigators. Each concluded the state medical examiner was right, that Kendrick died of “positional asphyxia” — an accident.

So what now? The Johnsons say they’ll continue to press for answers. By remaining neutral on whether Kendrick’s death was an accident, the Justice Department’s announcement only served to fuel the skeptics — some of whom continue to threaten the lives of Brian and Branden Bell, the sons of FBI agent Rick Bell.

“When Brian Bell and his brother are found in the same style they found Kendrick Johnson, hopefully their family can be at ease with it being ruled a freak accident,” one woman posted on the Stand Up for Brian Bell Facebook page. “I can’t wait for those boys to die. #dojcoveredfortheboys.”

“Accident my ass,” wrote another. “We’ll get ya.”

The evidence is overwhelming that the Bells couldn’t have been involved. Surveillance footage captured Brian in class when school cameras captured Kendrick entering the old Lowndes High gym, where his body would be discovered a day later. Branden, his older brother, was on a school bus headed to Macon for a wrestling tournament.

Yet they remain, in the eyes of a vocal minority, the only possible suspects in Kendrick’s death.

“When your dad is an FBI agent, you have a license to kill black people,” said a Facebook commenter last week.

Racial mistrust, conspiracy theories

If you believe Kendrick was murdered, you must accept the Lowndes sheriff, state medical examiner, the GBI, federal agents and the DOJ were all complicit. Their motive: to cover up for the Bells. Never mind that, if their plot was uncovered, they'd face prison time or, at the very least, the loss of their jobs.

State Rep. Dexter Sharper, a black Democrat who represents the Valdosta area, says the Johnsons aren’t blameless.

“A lot of people would like to help them with the healing process,” said Sharper, a paramedic who, after conducting his own probe into Kendrick’s death agreed that it was most likely an accident. As a result, he said he was harassed by members of the “KJ movement,” many of them from outside Valdosta.

Though not everyone in the African-American community believes Johnson was murdered, or his death covered up, the divide between those who do and those who think it an accident falls squarely along racial lines.

It’s a reality easily understood, said DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James.

“We all have different experiences,” said James who, as an African-American prosecutor, has a unique perspective. He’s witnessed the divide firsthand, bringing several highly charged police shootings before civil grand juries in DeKalb, a predominantly black county but with a significant population of affluent whites. “The splits are almost 100 percent down racial lines. Two sides that aren’t even close, that don’t understand one another.”

That mistrust in law enforcement is reinforced “on a daily basis,” James said.

“It’s warranted. It’s merited. It’s real,” he said. “Depending on your race you’re likely to see government action in completely different ways.”

‘They have this echo chamber’

The Johnson case provides plenty of fodder for the conspiracy-minded. There’s the freakish nature of Kendrick’s death. The streaks of blood on the wall of the old gym (not a match for KJ’s blood type, say investigators). Alleged gaps in the surveillance cameras (motion activated). The victim was a poor and black; his alleged killers, affluent and white.

“Conspiracy theorists are typically outsiders,” said University of Miami political science professor Joseph Uscinski, author of “American Conspiracy Theories.” “You have a grieving family, a strange death and a racial history that has led many African-Americans to mistrust our institutions.”

“What they don’t think about are the risks the ‘conspirators’ are taking,” he said. “What do they have to gain from it? If you think through most conspiracies they suffer from the same fallacies.”

Leigh Touchton, the former NAACP president, said social media has only exacerbated the problem.

“They have this echo chamber where they can find others who think the exact same,” she said. “Facts don’t matter.”

Three months after Johnson's body was discovered in January 2013, Touchton helped organize a rally outside the Lowndes County Courthouse where she called for a "independent, separate investigation" into what happened.

“It’s not that white people don’t care, it’s that white people grow up thinking the world is a fair place,” she said at the rally. “It’s up to us to educate our white brothers and sisters and let them know the world is not a fair place to people of color.”

‘Science is science, facts are facts’

Then, she was still uncertain what happened that day in the gym of her alma mater. Now, she classifies it as a “race hoax as bad as Tawana Brawley and the Duke lacrosse team.”

(Brawley, an African-American teen, drew national attention in late 1987 after claiming, falsely, she had been raped by four white men near Poughkeepsie, New York. In 2006, three members of Duke’s lacrosse team were falsely accused of rape by an exotic dancer they had hired to perform.)

Because of that, Touchton said she no longer feels a part of a community she once helped lead.

“People I thought would be my friends for the rest of my life, people who I went to jail with, have turned their backs on me,” she said. “All because I followed the evidence. Science is science. Facts are facts.”