Thursday, October 10, 2013
I have learned to be hesitant about making conclusions about high-profile cases before all of the facts are known. But yesterday, after seeing Georgia authorities’ decision to shut down the investigation into the death of a high school student and refusal to answer questions about the case because it was "closed," I find the stonewalling disturbing. Kendrick Johnson was a 17-year-old student whose body was found wrapped in a wrestling mat in the Lowndes County (Georgia) High School gym in January. Georgia authorities concluded that Johnson died by accidental asphyxiation when, while trying to retrieve a shoe, he fell headfirst into a rolled-up wrestling mat. Authorities said that Johnson suffocated by hanging in the mat upside down overnight. After the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department closed the investigation, Johnson’s family exhumed his body for a second autopsy. A forensic pathologist in Orlando concluded that Johnson died from “unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma.” Yesterday, Johnson’s family revealed video and pictures of the scene when Johnson was found. Those images raise legitimate questions about the cause of the teen’s death. The family also told CNN that they discovered that Johnson’s organs were not replaced in his body as is normally done after an autopsy, but instead their son’s body cavity was stuffed with newspaper. When a CNN reporter tried to interview the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department, the Sheriff ushered him out after learning that he wanted to discuss the Johnson case. I have no idea if the right conclusions were made that this was a freak accident or if the pictures of a bloodier scene than one would expect in an asphyxiation death mean that Johnson died in a different way than authorities first concluded. But authorities’ evasiveness about the teen’s death is troubling. Both the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (which conducted the first autopsy) and the Sheriff’s Department have legal immunity that largely insulates them from lawsuits for official, job-related acts. While there are still a few ways to sue a state official, both agencies are aware that they are essentially protected. So why refuse to comment on the evidence because “the case is closed,” as the Lowndes County Sheriff told CNN. If the agencies can explain the scene and the autopsy, why not answer the questions and remove all doubt about what happened?