kendrick_johnson_gym mat death

You read the headline correctly. Just when we thought the ridiculously inadequate, travesty of an investigation into the horrific death of Kendrick Johnson, the Georgia high school football player found stuffed in a gym mat, couldn’t get any worse, it does:  a second autopsy revealed his body and skull had been stuffed with newspaper before burial.

The discovery added yet another horrific layer to KJ’s death and further fueled skepticism of official findings that he accidentally fell into the mat and suffocated to death—findings that are incredibly hard to believe considering that when KJ’s body was found, the strapping, three-sport athlete’s face was so battered and deformed that his post-mortem picture recalls that of slain Civil Rights icon, Emmett Till.

As you can imagine, KJ’s parents are undone that their son’s body was stuffed with old newsprint and department-store circulars, as his mom, Jacquelyn Johnson, told CNN, “like he was a garbage can.”

“We have been let down again,” his father, Kenneth Johnson, told CNN. “When we buried Kendrick, we thought we were burying Kendrick, not half of Kendrick.”

Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine insists KJ’s death was nothing more than a freak accident and said in media reports that an autopsy revealed KJ died from accidental “positional asphyxiation,” caused when he fell into and got stuck upside down in a 700-lb, 7”-tall gym mat he may have reached into to retrieve his shoe. Deformation of his face was caused when his bodily fluids pooled in his head.

But the Johnson family has been arguing all along that KJ’s body was much too wide for the teen to accidentally fall into the rolled-up mat. They also think investigators rushed to rule KJ’s death accidental. Indeed, within 24 hours after the teen’s body was found, Prine pronounced there was “no foul play,” sans an autopsy and coroner input, and then took their time—four months—to release autopsy results.

Though the U.S. Justice Department declined to open a civil rights investigation into KJ’s death, the Johnsons did win a court order to have their son’s body exhumed for a second autopsy. That autopsy, conducted in June, found that KJ had sustained a blow to the right side of his neck “consistent with inflicted injury and concluded that he died as a result of “unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma.”

Photos of the crime scene also revealed shoddy work by investigators. A former FBI agent who observed a 15-minute video and nearly 700 photos taken by sheriff’s investigators, pointed out evidence that, at the very least, should have raised some questions about who may have been in the gym when KJ died. Harold Copus, who now is an Atlanta-area private detective pointed out that:

  • KJ’s face was bloated with pooled blood, some of which poured out of his body, soaking his dreadlocks and spilling onto the floor. Yet, the sneaker investigators claim he was reaching for, allegedly found just inches away from his head, had appeared to have not one drop of blood on it.
  • Streaks of blood were found on a nearby wall, but investigators concluded that they did not belong to KJ. They didn’t bother to find out whose blood it was, though—a revelation that could have led investigators to a potential suspect.
  • Investigators didn’t bother to collect as potential evidence a pair of orange-and-black gym shoes found a few yards away from KJ’s body. Those sneakers looked like they had blood on them, but investigators said the red stains were created with something else. Investigators also didn’t bother to collect a hooded sweatshirt found a few feet away from the teen.

Copus said he can’t explain how investigators handled items found around the gym. “If you’re running a crime scene, then you’re going to say, ‘That’s potential evidence. Obviously, we’re going to check this out and find out who does it belong to,'” Copus told CNN.

And now, news that every organ, from the pelvis to the skull, was gone from his body, with no one—not state investigators who performed the first autopsy, or the funeral home that prepared KJ’s body for burial—copping to destroying his body and any evidence that may have helped to figure out how, exactly, that child died.

This here is too much to bear—and all the shuffling and denials and proclamations that KJ’s death was nothing more than a “freak accident” is feeling a lot like that old Southern justice meted out in the Jim Crow era, when Black bodies swinging invited a whole lot of handshakes and back-slapping and little recourse for innocent men and women who were consistently and mercilessly terrorized by racists and the separate-and-unequal judicial system that protected them.

What can we do to help this family—to help bring JUSTICE for Kendrick Johnson and his family? We could start by signing this petition, calling for a government intervention and investigation into KJ’s death. We could also call, write and email the offices of U.S. attorney Michael Moore, the federal prosector in south Georgia who is weighing whether to open his own probe. His contact info: (478) 752-3511; Post Office Box 1702, Macon, Georgia 31202-1702, or; email Moore at

Nobody’s child should die like Kendrick Johnson did. And no one’s parents should be forced to sit in anguish while the very justice system that is supposed to protect ALL of its citizens continues to act like it’s interested in justice for KJ, when it seems so clearly that it is not.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

One Comment

  1. Do we know anything more about how his organs went missing? Was this prior to death or after death where his organs were taken for other purpose?

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