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New autopsy challenges 'accidental' finding in death of Georgia teen

By Victor Blackwell, CNN
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Tue September 3, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kendrick Johnson was found dead in a wrestling mat in a Lowndes County school
  • A newly released independent report says he died from being hit
  • The official determination was that Johnson had accidentally suffocated
  • Coroner: "I'm just not sure we have enough information" for an inquest

(CNN) -- Kendrick Johnson, the teenager whose body was found rolled in a wrestling mat in a south Georgia high school in January died from blows to the neck and elsewhere, not from accidental suffocation, a newly released, independent autopsy report says.

The report, obtained exclusively by CNN, directly contradicts the finding of an autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that determined Johnson's death was the result of "positional asphyxia." The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office determined it was accidental.

The new report blames "unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma."

Johnson, 17, was found January 11 in a rolled wrestling mat in a Lowndes County High School gym in Valdosta.

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Inconsistencies in the initial official reports on the condition of Johnson's body led the family and community to question the ruling on the cause of death.

The family's attorney, Chevene King, has sent the independent autopsy report to the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. attorney for Georgia's Middle District and the Lowndes County coroner for review.

The coroner has the power to call an inquest, a process that resembles a grand jury proceeding. After reviewing evidence and testimony, a jury would decide the cause of death, although the findings alone would have no civil or criminal consequences.

"Coroner's inquests are not something you do every day. I cannot tell you the last time a coroner's inquest was done in this office," Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson told CNN.

"I want to do the right thing by the people and the county and all concerned, I'm just not sure we have enough information," he said. "I'm not about to refute anybody's findings because I'm not a doctor."

On May 1, a judge granted the Johnsons' request to exhume their son's body for the purposes of a conducting an independent autopsy at their expense.

That autopsy, conducted June 15, found blunt force trauma to the right neck and soft tissues "consistent with inflicted injury."

That supports the narrative of the initial patient care report, written January 11, the day Johnson's body was discovered, citing "bruising noted to the right side jaw."

However, the January 25 report by the Valdosta-Lowndes County Regional Crime Laboratory cited "no signs of blunt force trauma on Johnson's face or body."

The May 5 autopsy completed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation identified "no significant injuries"

A spokesperson for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told CNN it stands by its report after reviewing the findings of the independent autopsy.

U.S. Attorney Michael Moore said his office has been "working on this for some time. I'm sure at the appropriate time I'll speak with his pathologist."

Moore is reviewing the case but has not launched a formal investigation.

"There are some members of the community that question the result. I want to make sure members of the community and the family and everyone involved has confidence in my work and my decision," Moore told CNN.

There was no immediate response to CNN's request for comment from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

The Johnsons' attorney told CNN he will respond at a later date.

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