On February 4, the parents of Kendrick Johnson –Kenneth and Jackie Johnson– are still searching for answers nearly one month after their son was found in a Lowndes County gymnasium wrapped inside wrestling mats on Friday, January 11.
According to a January 15 account from the Valdosta Daily Times, the following was reported:
(Lowndes County) …”Sheriff’s and GBI investigators initially worked the scene as a suspected homicide. The sheriff’s office and Lowndes County School System issued a statement of suspecting no foul play by Friday night….”
In essence, a determination was made on the same day via a statement through the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department–led by Chris Prine– that no foul play was suspected.
“At some point, Kendrick Johnson either reached into the center of one of the rolled mats or fell into the center opening of the mat and became lodged,” according the sheriff’s office statement.
“We feel like he was trying to reach a shoe that was down that hole,” the sheriff said, “but no one knows (why he reached into the mat) but him and the good Lord.”
The Sheriff has a role to play in the investigation, but the coroner is the elected officer who is required to be notified by local police –city or county– in conjunction with the authorities in cases involving death.
When did the county coroner first become aware of what happened to Kendrick Johnson on January 11? How long did the Sheriff Department wait to notify the coroner?
Lowndes County’s Sheriff is Chris Prine and the Lowndes County coroner is W.M. (Bill) Watson.
However, Prine had a prominent role in publicly dispatching theories of how Kendrick Johnson may have died.
The following are headlines during the first week of the investigation:
A headline in the January 15 edition of the Valdosta Daily Times reads: Autopsy returned in student death ….. Sheriff: No signs of struggle found
A local TV afffilate FOX 31 has a headline: Lowndes County Sheriff says no death causing injuries found on Kendrick Johnson
Another example is from WALB-TV: Officials call Lowndes student death accidental
What is the common theme among these stories and all the stories written about Kendrick Johnson since January 12?
Sheriff Prine is listed as the main source and there is no mention of the coroner’s name and/or medical examiner in any of these articles.
The ‘elected’ county coroner— Bill Watson– and the people that work in his office are the people who are qualified to make a determination and explain their findings, not the sheriff one would think.
Furthermore, the office of the coroner is designed to be independent of the sheriff, police and/or fire departments but works in conjunction with those other entities.
A coroner is a government official who confirms and certifies the death of an individual within a jurisdiction.
A coroner may also conduct or order an investigation into the manner or cause of death, and investigate or confirm the identity of an unknown person who has been found dead within the coroner’s jurisdiction.
Responsibilities may include overseeing the investigation and certification of deaths related to mass disasters that occur within the coroner’s jurisdiction. A coroner’s office typically maintains death records of those who have died within the coroner’s jurisdiction.
It is very common for the county coroner to make media statements in cases such as this, especially high profile cases which have unique circumstances.
However, it is a tad unusual that there are no public statements from the Lowndes County coroner on the Kendrick Johnson case.
If the death of Kendrick Johnson was originally ruled ‘accidental’, then it is fair to ask the medical professional who is working under the Office of the Coroner including Mr. Watson himself to provide a formal report to the public.
That didn’t happen throughout the month of January.
Lowndes County is not a small rural community, but has a population of nearly 120,000 people with the largest city being Valdosta.
Johnson, a sophomore at Lowndes County High School located in west Valdosta, was last seen during school hours during the early afternoon on Thursday, January 10.
Johnson’s parents have expressed publicly that they believed their child was murdered and have demanded that Lowndes County Sherriff Chris Prine specifically and other officials should step down.
This story has received worldwide attention, and many multiple nation media outlets want to hear the story .
The following is an excerpt from Johnson’s father from a interview by Albany’s WALB-TV:
“He was last seen third block going to fourth block, he was seen no more. Then again, I want to express how did my son go missing during school hours in broad daylight? We know our son was murdered while he was at Lowndes High School. We do know that,” said Kenneth Johnson.
According to WALB-TV, they reported Prine says it appears Johnson was sitting on top of a row of rolled-up cheerleading mats when he lost a shoe or an article of clothing. When he bent down to retrieve it, he couldn’t get back out. Johnson’s parents don’t believe that.
Who signed off on the theory that it wasn’t foul play on the same day Kendrick Johnson’s body was found?
W.M. (Bill) Watson is Lowndes County’s coroner and has occupied the position after defeating Terry Hawke in November 2008.
Watson had a contested Democratic primary in July 2012, but managed to win. In November 2012, Watson ran unopposed.
Voting for the office of the President matters, but on the local level, the offices of District Attorney, Lowndes Sheriff and Lowndes Coroner are offices that are considered ‘down ballot’ races that should require more scrutiny from the voters.
Lowndes has been traditionally a conservative county that vote for Republicans and Dixiecrats, but the city of Valdosta and Lowndes have become increasingly diverse over the past decade.
However, voter registration and participation has stagnated and left the door open for Republicans and Dixiecrats to retain a stronghold over local government.
President Obama only lost Lowndes by approximately 4,000 votes, but there are tens of thousands of Lowndes/Valdosta residents who are not registered.
Elections matter and have consequences.
With growing protest of Prine, J. David Miller and others who are elected, the ballot box is one of the direct ways to make a point and indirectly get justice for Kendrick Johnson.
Chris Prine, the Lowndes County Sheriff, was first elected to office in 2008 replacing long-time Sheriff Ashley Paulk.
Paulk, who had eventuially become a county commissioner in Lowndes in 2008, was the target of protests during his days as Lowndes Sheriff over a decade ago in regard to jail deaths. The African-American community had demanded Paulk’s resignation at the time.
Fast forward to 2013, Chris Prine, is facing protests from the Lowndes County-Valdosta’s African-American community.
Last November, Prine won re-election as sheriff
Prine started working for the Sheriff Department as a deputy from 1968 through 1972 and later worked for three decades as part of the Georgia State Patrol (1973-2002).
It is normal for the local authorities such as the Sherriff’s Department to make statements in an investigation, but to unilaterally make a statement on the same day (January 11) as if it is nearly a closed case is presumptuous to say the very least.
Where is the Office of the Coroner’s point of view who is the locally elected coroner of Lowndes County. Watson is supposedly an independent investigator working on behalf of the citizens of Lowndes?
The GBI was called in, but what role did Watson have in the investigation prior to the GBI being formally notified?
WALB-TV, WCTV-TV and the Valdosta Daily Times could have posed these questions in an effort to provide an overview of the process, but after nearly month since Kendrick Johnson’s body was found on January 11, Mr. Watson has never been quoted in the local media.
Kendrick Johnson’s body was not immediately identified by parents and this raises questions as well.
There are many questions in this case, but why haven’t local media questioned and , quoted and receive confirmation about those “preliminary findings” which should come from the mouth of the County coroner, W.M. Watson. and not exclusively from Sheriff Chris Prine?
There are three major media outlets that serve the Valdosta area, WCTV-TV based out of Valdosta, WALB-TV based out Albany and the local newspaper, the Valdosta Daily Times.
Unbelievably, in each if those media sources there were no published quotes or public statements from the Lowndes County coroner on January 11 –the day Johnson’s body was found– or even the Southern Circuit District Attorney, J. David Miller– who is another elected official.
We are now into early February and closing in on thirty full days and silence has been the main narrative from local authorities, except Sheriff Prine.