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Civil rights leaders call for justice in Kendrick Johnson death

Community and national activists rallied on Wednesday to pressure Georgia's governor to address the mysterious death of teenager Kendrick Johnson.
Leon Ford, center, joins hands with supporters during a rally in memory of Kendrick Johnson, the Georgia teenager found dead inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in his school, Dec. 11, 2013, in Atlanta.
Leon Ford, center, joins hands with supporters during a rally in memory of Kendrick Johnson, the Georgia teenager found dead inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in his school, Dec. 11, 2013, in Atlanta.

As the one-year anniversary of Georgia teenager Kendrick Johnson's death approaches, community and national civil rights activists joined his parents Wednesday at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta to demand justice and further investigation into the details surrounding their son's death. 

Dozens of supporters, including Martin Luther King III and Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, rallied to urge Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to address the case. The event came a day after Johnson's parents filed a complaint with the Georgia Secretary of State over the handling of their son's body.

The 17-year-old Johnson was found dead inside of a rolled-up wrestling mat in the Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., gym in January. An initial autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation ruled the death an accident, but his family questioned the ruling, exhumed the body and had a second autopsy performed. During that second autopsy, the pathologist hired by the Johnson family said he discovered many of the teen's internal organs were missing. including his brain, and that his body cavity had been filled with newspaper. 

The Johnson family's complaint alleges the funeral director responsible for his body after the initial autopsy "at best, misled us as to the condition of our son's body, and at worse, is responsible for the removal and destruction of his organs, and, thus, desecration of our son's body." It calls for an investigation into the possibility that Harrington "facilitated a cover-up" that deprived pathologists of "the means by which to determine how he may have died."

Kate Haygood, a spokeswoman with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, confirmed to msnbc that the office received the complaint Tuesday and that an investigation into the funeral home began before the complaint was received.

An attorney for the funeral home told CBS that the organs had been removed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation before the funeral home accepted Johnson’s body because of decomposition. A spokesperson for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said that in "every single autopsy [conducted at the GBI], the internal organs are returned to the body cavity."

In addition to discovering missing organs, the pathologist who conducted the second independent autopsy concluded that ”unexplained, apparent non-accidental, blunt force trauma,” caused Johnson's death, according to CNN. The state's original autopsy had ruled that the teen's accidental death had been caused by positional asphyxia, meaning that his body became lodged in a position inside the mat that made it impossible for him to breathe.

U.S. Attorney Michael Moore announced a federal investigation into the mysterious death in October. A spokeswoman for the U.S Attorney's office declined to comment on the case Wednesday.

Johnson family attorney Chevene King said on PoliticsNation on Oct. 31 that the family had "no faith" in the investigations that had taken place leading up to the U.S. Attorney's announcement.

“If it was an accident then of course there ought to be proof that the investigation could produce for the parents and for the public quite frankly to look at and say, ‘Okay, I understand that as strange as the theory that the sheriff offered may sound, it turns out to be the truth,’” he said, expressing hope for the new investigation but also vowing to continue the family's independent investigation and release information to the public. 

The Florida-based youth advocacy group known as the Dream Defenders joined the rally on Wednesday, releasing a video titled "#JusticeforKJ" which they hope will help spread information about the case.