More surveillance video to be released in Georgia gym mat death

Kendrick Johnson's body was found in a rolled-up gym mat, seen here at right in a horizontal position. Johnson died, investigators say, while the mat was upright. A coach and students later tilted the mat over to see what was inside. Lowndes County Sheriff's Office

By Gabe Gutierrez, Correspondent, NBC News

VALDOSTA, Ga. – The camera aimed in the general direction of where Kendrick Johnson was found dead in a rolled-up gym mat in January did not record how his body ended up there because the device was motion activated and the mat was out of its range, a sheriff’s investigator told NBC News.

On Wednesday, video from that camera and about 31 others at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., is expected to be released to Johnson’s parents and the media.

Local officials previously opposed the release of the footage due to privacy concerns regarding other minors in the video. But last week, a judge ordered that it be made public. County Attorney Jim Elliott distributed several clips immediately, but said the full request would take days to process because of the sheer volume of material from dozens of cameras inside and outside the gym.

Kendrick Johnson of Valdosta, Ga., is seen in an undated photo released by the family. Johnson, a three-sport athlete, was found dead on Jan. 11 in a rolled-up wrestling mat in his high school gym. Courtesy of Johnson family

Not recorded?

For months, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office said that Johnson’s death was not visible from any of the school’s cameras.

But on Tuesday, Lt. Stryde Jones told NBC News that was because the camera was motion activated and whatever happened to the 17-year-old would have occurred on the other side of the gym.

The very brief portion that had been previously released showed Johnson entering the gym. But what happened next remains a mystery.

Jones said he did not know the exact range of the device.

On the official diagram of Lowndes High School included in the sheriff's case file, the camera in question is labeled G4 – one of four cameras in the gym. Two are located near the gym’s entrance and are pointed toward each other. The other two – also located near the entrance – point outward to both corners of the gym.

For 10 months, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, the teen's parents, have pleaded with local authorities to release the surveillance video from Jan. 10 – the day their son went missing – and Jan. 11 – the day his body was found in the rolled-up wrestling mat in the gym.

The Johnsons believe their son -- a three-sport athlete -- was murdered by a group of people and they allege someone has been trying to cover it up.

“We want the truth,” said the teen’s father, Kenneth. “We want to know exactly what happened.”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted the initial autopsy and ruled that Johnson accidentally suffocated inside the upright mat after he fell in headfirst reaching for a shoe. According to the case file, witnesses told investigators that students often hid their sneakers inside the mats between gym periods because lockers were insufficient.

Lowndes High School, Valdosta, Ga. NBC News

But five months later, Johnson’s parents exhumed his body and hired a private pathologist to perform a second autopsy, which found that Johnson had died from a blow to his neck.

Sherry Lang, a GBI spokeswoman, said the agency stands by its team of medical examiners “100 percent.”

In an odd twist, Dr. Bill Anderson, the private pathologist, also discovered Johnson's organs were missing and the teen's body cavity had been filled with newspapers.

A case reopened

Last week, U.S. Attorney Michael Moore in Macon, Ga., announced he was opening a formal review of the facts in the Kendrick Johnson case.

“I do this with an open mind,” Moore said, “neither accepting or rejecting the opinions of anyone who has previously investigated the circumstances of his death.”

But many questions remain about how far any investigation would go. Even if Moore finds sufficient evidence that Johnson’s death was a homicide, federal authorities might not be able to prosecute the case.

“If there were facts that this was some kind of civil rights violation -- that is, a crime based on the victim's race -- then you could have federal jurisdiction,” said Francey Hakes, a national security consultant in Atlanta and former federal prosecutor.

If someone lied to federal investigators, she said, there could also be obstruction charges.

But otherwise, any prosecution for murder would have to come from local authorities.

Courtney Greene, 17, one of Johnson’s classmates, was in the gymnasium when his body was found.

She said the case reopening gives the student body renewed hope. 

“From the very beginning, we said that the truth will come out eventually," Greene said. “Why? Why would he be there alone? Why would he disappear and just suddenly show up dead the next day?…It doesn't add up.”

Coroner’s inquest

A judge in southern Georgia is still weighing whether to order a coroner’s inquest into Johnson’s death. The judicial proceeding would require a six-person jury to hear witness testimony and review evidence to decide whether Johnson died from natural causes, an accident, suicide or homicide.

The teen’s family requested the corner’s inquest several weeks ago. It would essentially reopen the case at the local level.

“We think this is critical,” said Benjamin Crump, the nationally-known civil rights attorney who is now representing the Johnsons, “in light of all the other things that are questionable about this investigation, to make not only the public have confidence in this finding but this family to have some peace of knowing what really killed their child.”

Sheriff’s office investigators have maintained Johnson’s death was a “tragic accident.” But Lt. Jones has said they’d be willing to reopen the case if new evidence or witnesses came forward.

After Johnson’s body was found, Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson was not called for hours while authorities processed the scene. In a recent phone interview with NBC News, Watson said his initial complaint about not being called sooner was an “internal matter” that “did not affect” the outcome of the investigation.

Watson now stands behind the findings of the sheriff’s office, but declined to comment further because the U.S. attorney had reopened the case.

Dan Shepherd contributed reporting from Valdosta, Ga., and Leo Juarez contributed from Atlanta.