Copyright 2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A judge has ordered the parents of a Valdosta teen found dead in a rolled-up gym mat to pay nearly $300,000 in attorney fees to those they accused of killing their son and the parties they alleged conspired to cover it up.
The long-anticipated ruling by Lowndes County Superior Court Judge Richard Porter stems from a 2015 wrongful death lawsuit alleging brothers Brian and Branden Bell murdered 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson. The Lowndes High sophomore's body was discovered on Jan. 11, 2013, in the school's old gymnasium. State and local investigators concluded he died from positional asphyxia after he got stuck in the mat, presumably reaching for a pair of sneakers.
But Kendrick's parents, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, never accepted the official finding.Their attorney, Chevene King, was also ordered to reimburse the nearly two dozen defendants named in the initial lawsuit.
According to that suit, FBI agent Rick Bell, father of Brian and Branden, along with Lowndes County's school superintendent and a former sheriff, rolled Kendrick's body in the gym mat and devised a plan to make his death look like an accident.
The vast conspiracy even included the superintendent's daughters, enlisted by their father to "discover" Johnson's body, according to the suit.
"Judge Porter has now put those false accusations to rest and determined that the Johnsons' and their lawyer's accusations were substantially frivolous, groundless and vexatious," said attorney Jim Elliott, who represents former Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine. "All of those who have been falsely accused have been vindicated. Truth prevails. Justice has been done."
Porter had harsh words for the Johnsons and King in his order, accusing them of fabricating evidence to support their claims.
"Their testimony shows they had no evidence to support their claims that the Bells killed Johnson or that any of the other defendants engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the cause of manner of Johnson's death," Porter wrote.
The Johnsons' initial wrongful death suit was eventually withdrawn but just last month they filed another suit that contains similar accusations about a murder and cover-up.
Referring to the second such suit, filed in 2016, Porter said the Johnsons and King merely reiterated claims "without any evidence or factual basis."
He also accused King of purposely delaying a ruling on attorney fees.
In 2016, The Justice Department concluded there was "insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson's civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime."
That investigation wrapped up nearly two years after an FBI video analysis concluded the Bell brothers were nowhere near the old gymnasium when Johnson was last seen entering the facility where the 17-year-old victim was discovered in a rolled-up gym mat, according to a newly released documents.
Despite that seemingly incontrovertible evidence, the federal investigation continued, costing Brian Bell a football scholarship to Florida State University. Bell, along with his brother, parents, girlfriend and her parents, were also subjected to military-style law enforcement raids that turned up no evidence linking them to any crimes. Meanwhile, the Johnsons remain undeterred, vowing to continue fighting to prove their son's death was not an accident.
"This is bs and they know it but there message they're sending is an epic fail we will fight on for Kendrick Kj Johnson it isn't over!" Jackie Johnson wrote on Facebook following Porter's ruling.
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