Kendrick Johnson, dead teen found in rolled up gym mat (Photo Credit: Justice for KJ)

On January 11, 2013, the body of Kendrick Johnson,17, was upside down when it was discovered inside a rolled up wrestling mat in the gymnasium of Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia, where he was a student. The medical examiner found that the cause of death was accidental and was due to “positional asphyxia.”

His parents, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, were not satisfied with the answers they were receiving and pressed hard for justice. They had his body exhumed and examined by a hired forensic examiner and the discoveries were shocking, It was found that Kendrick Johnson suffered blunt force trauma to his body. According to statements issued by the family, evidence was found of blunt force trauma to the right side of Kendrick’s neck, near the jaw, and the manner of death was not an accident. Also hemorrhages were found to the jaw line area not detected during the GBI autopsy. Johnson’s internal organs were also missing and his body was stuffed with old newspapers.

This evidence propelled the case into the national spotlight and soon a federal investigation was initiated. Implicated in Johnson’s death were  Brian Bell and another unnamed person of interest, possibly his brother. The trial rocked the community of Valdosta and uncovered deep racial divides in the city. Because Bell’s father is a former FBI agent, many judges in that district recused themselves from hearing the case because of their friendship with the Bell family. More than 70 witnesses were called to testify about their knowledge of the case and the list included prominent and powerful residents. In June 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s Office found “insufficient evidence” to charge anyone with Johnson’s unusual death and the case was closed.

Despite this setback, the Johnson family pursued a $100M lawsuit against the GBI, county and school officials as well as Rick Bell and his sons Brian and Braden. The Johnsons withdrew their case with the intention to re-file the suit at another time and this week they were dealt a mighty blow.  A judge has ordered Kenneth and Jackie Johnson to pay $300K in legal fees to those they accused of conspiring to cover up their son’s death. It’s a financial blow that will have devastating effects for a family that just wanted answers.

Mo Barnes

"Mo Betta" Maurice "Mo" Barnes is a graduate of Morehouse College and Political Scientist based in Atlanta. Mo is also a Blues musician.