A federal prosecutor in Georgia has opened a formal review into what local officials ruled was the accidental death of a teenager, found dead and wrapped in a wrestling mat in his high school gymnasium.
The latest step in the case of Kendrick Johnson was announced Thursday by Michael Moore, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia at a news conference in his office in Macon. Johnson's parents and lawyers have questioned the official ruling that the high school student died in an accident and had a private autopsy done that supported the possibility of foul play.
"At this time, I am of the opinion that a sufficient basis exists for my office to conduct a formal review of the facts and investigation surrounding the death of Kendrick Johnson," Moore told reporters, according to a transcript emailed to reporters. "I do this with an open mind, neither accepting nor rejecting the opinions of anyone who has previously investigated the circumstances of Mr. Johnson's death.
"As the United States Attorney, and within the confines of appropriate federal jurisdiction, I am committed to following the facts wherever they may lead," Moore said. "My objective is to discover the truth, and I believe that can only be done by gathering all of the relevant information surrounding Mr. Johnson's death. I am committed to doing everything in my power to answer the questions that exist in this case, or as many of them that we can."
Johnson was found in the gym of the Lowndes County High School on Jan. 11, 2013. His body was upside down in the middle of a wrestling mat that had been rolled up and propped upright behind bleachers.
The state autopsy found that Johnson had died of "positional asphyxia as a result of becoming accidentally lodged in the mat," Moore said.
The family and its lawyers, including Benjamin Crump, who won national attention for his representation of the family of Trayvon Martin, shot to death by George Zimmerman in Florida. A jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges in the celebrated case that revolved around race and guns.
The second autopsy was performed by Dr. William R. Anderson, who in an August report to the family said he detected hemorrhaging on the right side of Johnson's neck. He concluded the teenager died from blunt force trauma near his carotid artery and that the blow appeared not to be an accident.
"We welcome the new investigation," Crump said in an interview on CNN, which has been closely reporting on the case. "This is a murder mystery we would like ... officials to solve."
It was unclear what role, if any, federal authorities would eventually play in the case. Moore said his office has received results from both autopsies as well as other records from local law enforcement agencies that investigated the death of the high school basketball player.
"As part of that process, there are several questions that must be answered or confirmed. First, what was the cause of Mr. Johnson's death? Second, was Mr. Johnson's death the result of a crime? Third, if Mr. Johnson's death was the result of a crime, who committed that crime? Fourth, if a crime was committed, who has the jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute those responsible?"
Even if a crime is found, Moore warned, the federal government might not have standing to pursue a prosecution. "Federal jurisdiction is limited, and there may be circumstances where even if it is determined that Kendrick Johnson died as a result of a criminal act, it may not be a crime which could be prosecuted in federal court," he said.
On Wednesday, a state judge ordered authorities to release all surveillance video that investigators had accumulated. Officials had refused to release some of the video, saying it showed some students who were minors.
The sheriff has said he suspects Johnson became trapped trying to retrieve a shoe that fell into the center of the large, rolled mat. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said it stands by the findings of the initial autopsy.
The federal Justice Department had initially said it had reviewed the local investigation and did not find "sufficient indication of a civil rights violation to authorize a civil rights investigation."
Moore on Thursday cited the calls by people expressing "their concerns, fears and opinions about Mr. Johnson's death and the subsequent investigation" as part of the reason to now take a formal look at the case. But he warned that: "Facts, not feelings and opinions, no matter how sincere, are the basis of a legal investigation."