Kendrick Johnson missing organs, newspaper found instead on 2nd autopsy

October 10, 2013

The first time Jacquelyn Johnson cried next to her son Kendrick's grave, he was being lowered into the ground. The second time, he was being pulled out of it.

In June, Kendrick's body was sent to Florida. The Johnsons hired Doctor Bill Anderson to conduct an independent second autopsy. In that autopsy, Anderson told the Johnsons he'd found evidence that Kendrick died as the result of a blow to the neck, and not accidental asphyxia after slipping into a rolled gym mat at school as investigators in Georgia had said.

But what Doctor Anderson did not find shocked them.

"When we got the body for the second autopsy, the organs - the heart, lungs, liver etc. - were not with the body," Anderson said. "The brain. They were all absent."

Every organ from the top of Kendrick's head to his pelvis was gone. And his family had no idea.

"We have been let down again, and when we buried Kendrick, we thought we were burying Kendrick, not half of Kendrick," father Kenneth Johnson said.

"I'm not sure at this point who did not return the organs to the body, but I know when we got the body, the organs were not there," Anderson said.

Two entities had custody of Kendrick's body and access to his organs the first time he was buried: the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which conducted the first autopsy in January, and Harrington Funeral Home, which the Johnsons chose to embalm and prepare Kendrick's body for burial, days later.

A spokeswoman for the state told CNN after its autopsy, "the organs were placed in Johnson's body, the body was closed, then the body was released to the funeral home." State investigators say it's their normal practice, but what happened after his body arrived at the funeral home was anything but normal.

Doctor Anderson has pictures of Kendrick's body he'd taken during the second autopsy, which show Black Friday ads and JC Penny circulars.

"Stuffing that newspaper in like he was a garbage can inside his body," Kendrick father said. "I'd never heard of that before, never."

Neither had the founder of a national embalming academy, who said it's "not consistent with the standards of care" in the industry. Nor had the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, who said he's "never heard of this practice."

Why would the funeral home discard his organs and replace them with newspaper?

"The question is, why didn't he tell us?" Kenneth Johnson said.

So what exactly did the Harrington Funeral Home do with Kendrick's organs and why was he stuffed with old newspaper? In a letter to the Johnsons' attorney, Harrington Funeral Home owner Antonio Harrington denies he received Kendrick's organs. He writes, in part: "his internal organs were destroyed through natural process and henceforth were discarded before the body was sent back to Valdosta."

It's another disappointing answer for parents determined to know what happened to their son before and now after his death. And they admit, they're struggling.

"It's unbearable, just about. The only thing that wakes you up in the morning is to just keep pushing," said Jacquelyn Johnson.

Trayvon family lawyer joins outcry over Ga. death

The attorney who helped push for a criminal prosecution in Trayvon Martin's shooting said Thursday that he's joining the fight to reopen an investigation into the death of a Georgia teenager whose body was found inside a rolled-up wrestling mat at school.

The body of Kendrick Johnson, 17, was found Jan. 11 in south Georgia, and Lowndes County sheriff's investigators concluded that he died in a freak accident - falling headfirst into an upright mat and becoming trapped. But Johnson's family believes he was killed and has been pressuring authorities into taking a second look at the case.

Now the family has enlisted the help of Tallahassee, Fla.-based attorney Benjamin Crump. Best known as the lawyer who helped focus national attention on the February 2012 shooting death of Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, Crump has pursued several civil rights cases against law enforcement agencies. He said Johnson's parents came to him seeking help.

"This is a real-life murder mystery where these parents sent their child to school with a book bag and he was returned to them in a body bag," Crump said in a phone interview. "They brought me in to make sure this is not able to be swept under the rug in small-town Georgia and they never get justice for their child."

School officials found Johnson's body in the gym after his parents reported him missing the night before. He was stuck upside down in the middle of a wrestling mat that had been rolled up and propped upright behind bleachers.

Sheriff Chris Prine has said he suspected Johnson became trapped while trying to retrieve a shoe that fell into the center of the large rolled mat. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner concluded that the youth died from positional asphyxia, his body stuck in a position in which he couldn't breathe.

But the teen's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, hired Dr. William R. Anderson to provide a second opinion after a judge agreed in May to exhume the body. The private pathologist performed his own autopsy in June and presented a four-page report of his findings Aug. 15.

Anderson's report said he detected hemorrhaging on the right side of Johnson's neck. The pathologist concluded the teenager had died from blunt force trauma near his carotid artery and that the fatal blow appeared to be "non-accidental."

GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang said the agency stands by its original findings.

"We have an excellent team of medical examiners, and we stand by them 100 percent," Lang said.

Johnson's family asked the Justice Department to get involved, arguing that authorities failed to investigate Johnson's death thoroughly because he's black. But the Justice Department found insufficient evidence to support an investigation. U.S. Attorney Michael Moore in Macon has been monitoring the case but has yet to announce whether he'll take any further action. Moore did not immediately return a phone message Thursday.

Crump said the Johnson family's legal team plans to focus on getting the official manner of death in the case changed from accidental to homicide. Asked how he planned to do that, Crump said, "We're going to have to look at getting the courts involved." He said it was too soon to be more specific.

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