crimesider

No wrongdoing detected in Kendrick Johnson funeral home probe

Kendrick Johnson CBS Atlanta

The Georgia Secretary of State has concluded its investigation into the funeral home that handled the remains of Kendrick Johnson, a Georgia teen found dead in Jan. 2012 inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in his high school gym, according to a spokesperson for Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Jared Thomas told CBS News’ Crimesider no criminal charges have been filed against the Harrington Funeral Home in Valdosta, Ga. because the investigation found “they didn’t violate any rules.”

Thomas said a letter of concern was issued to the funeral home on behalf of the Georgia Funeral Board, which is administered by the Georgia Secretary of State, asking them to “update their practices.”

Authorities initially called Johnson's death a freak accident, saying he fell head-first into an upright gym mat and became trapped. The case was closed, but Johnson's family insisted he was killed.

When a judge agreed to exhume Johnson's body last summer, a private pathologist not only determined he died of blunt force trauma to the neck, but also that his organs were missing and his body had been stuffed with newspaper.

While it remains unclear what happened to Johnson’s organs, the Harrington Funeral Home has admitted to using newspaper to stuff Johnson’s body, saying it is in conformity with burial protocol.

Crimesider spoke to four experts in November 2012 in regards to the case which all said it is not common for newspaper to be used during embalming.

“It’s not something very pleasant to talk about but it’s not illegal,” Thomas said Friday of the funeral home’s embalming technique.

Thomas went on to say that the investigation done by the Georgia Secretary of State could not determine what happened to Johnson’s organs. He said they were unable to determine whether the funeral home received the body with the organs in place.

Roy Copeland, the attorney for the funeral home, released a written statement to Crimesider in November saying that when the funeral home received Johnson’s body, the organs had already been removed.

He said Antonio Harrington was told by a death investigator with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which conducted the autopsy, that Johnson’s viscera, or internal organs, were disposed of during the autopsy due to decomposition. He also justified the funeral home’s use of newspaper to stuff Johnson’s body, saying it is in conformity with burial protocol.

Sherry Lang, spokesperson for the GBI, told Crimesider in November that in "every single autopsy [conducted at the GBI], the internal organs are returned to the body cavity."

The body was transported from the GBI to the funeral home by a third-party transport company, which has not responded to multiple requests for an interview.

Ben Crump, an attorney representing the Johnson family, told Crimesider Friday that while the family is disappointed that the funeral home cannot be held criminally responsible for stuffing their son’s body with newspaper, it is “far less important than the critical issue of them discarding or destroying his organs.”

Crump said the fact that the organs are missing is “critical” because “it prevents the family from being able to retest and reexamine his organs which could provide valuable and relevant information as to what happened to him.”

“The family will be proactive in getting to the truth of what happened to their son,” Crump said. “This news will certainly be followed with action.”

The Georgia Secretary of State was not the only entity reexamining Johnson’s case. Michael Moore, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, announced in November that he was reopening the case.

Crimesider contacted the office of Michael Moore on Friday for a comment on the status of the investigation but it was not immediately returned.

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    Stephanie Slifer covers crime and justice for CBSNews.com.

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