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7 judges recuse themselves in Johnson gym mat death suit

VALDOSTA, Ga. - All seven judges in Georgia's Southern Judicial Circuit have recused themselves from presiding over a lawsuit against the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office filed by the parents of Kendrick Johnson, the teen found dead in January 2013 inside a rolled-up gym mat in his high school gymnasium.

The judges also recused themselves from hearing a lawsuit against the Lowndes County School District filed by CNN.

In a Jan.7 letter addressed to lawyers of all parties involved in the suits, Chief Judge Harry Jay Altman II wrote, "Given the fact that officials with whom the judges in the circuit deal with everyday are involved, it is not fair to the parties for any judge in this circuit to rule on contested matters of importance to the parties and the community."

Johnson's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, sued Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine in June 2013 to obtain the department's unredacted case file on their son's death, including school surveillance video from around the time their son was last seen alive.

Judge Altman ruled in favor of the Johnsons in October 2013 and the case file and surveillance video were made public. Several issues remain unresolved, however. Johnson's family recently filed an amendment to their civil suit accusing two brothers - who are the sons of a local FBI agent and who attended school with Kendrick - of causing Johnson's death. The suit also suggests that Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine conspired with state and local agencies to cover up any wrongdoing.

In November 2013, CNN filed its own lawsuit against the Lowndes County School system in order to obtain clones of hard drives containing the original recordings of surveillance video given to sheriff's investigators. That suit has not been resolved.

The Johnson family also has two pending wrongful death suits against the Lowndes County School System, but according to the Valdosta Daily Times, Judge Altman's recusal does not effect those suits since they are currently being handled in federal court.

The recusals came just days before the two-year anniversary of the discovery of Johnson's body. The 17-year-old was found in a rolled-up mat in the Lowndes High School gymnasium on January 11, 2013. The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office ruled his death a freak accident, saying he fell head-first into an upright mat while trying to retrieve a shoe, and became trapped. An autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concurred, citing asphyxiation as the cause of death.

Johnson's family insisted there was foul play was involved and had their son's body exhumed for a second autopsy. It was then that a private pathologist concluded the teen died of blunt force trauma to the neck and said his organs were missing and the teen's body had been stuffed with newspaper.

Since then, Johnson's family and their attorneys have zeroed in on the two brothers who the family contends were on campus when Johnson was last seen alive, and who they say may have had a motive to harm their son.

The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office maintains that at least one of the brothers was not at the school at the time Johnson was last seen alive.

In response to the Johnson family's new amendment to the suit, Jim Elliot, an attorney for the sheriff's office, told the Valdosta Daily Time, "We are reviewing the allegations which appear to us to have no merit, and we will be considering an appropriate response."

The sheriff's department has stood by their finding that Johnson's death was accidental. The brothers whom the Johnson family has zeroed in on have not been charged and have maintained through their lawyer that they had nothing to do with Johnson's death.

A federal review of Johnson's death, which was initiated in October 2013 by U.S. Attorney Michael Moore, is still underway.

Moore said in a statement Friday his investigation has "proven more complicated" than he originally anticipated. He said federal investigators "remain committed to following the facts wherever they may lead."

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