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Feds seek to pause civil lawsuit in Ga. gym mat death

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Federal prosecutors who have spent nearly two years investigating the death of Kendrick Johnson, the Georgia teenager who was found at school inside a rolled-up gym mat, want a judge to order a six-month halt to evidence-gathering in a civil lawsuit by the boy's parents.

Classmates found the body of the 17-year-old in a gymnasium at Lowndes High School in January 2013. Michael Moore, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, announced a federal investigation on Oct. 31, 2013, after the sheriff's department concluded that the teenager died in a freak accident in which he got stuck upside down - and unable to breathe - in the upright mat.

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Jacquelyn Johnson, center left, wipes a tear while speaking with her husband Kenneth, right, at a "Who Killed K.J." rally in memory of their son, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, in Atlanta, Ga. AP Photo/David Goldman
Johnson's parents insist that someone killed their son. With the federal criminal investigation still unresolved, Johnson's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit earlier this year blaming two brothers for killing him. The lawsuit also says local and state investigators and school officials covered up the crime.

A $100 million wrongful death suit filed by Johnson's family earlier this year alleges the brothers - Johnson's schoolmates Brian and Branden Bell, ages 18 and 20 - were encouraged by their FBI agent father to "violently assault" Johnson, leading to his death.

In July, government agents executed search warrants at the Bells' home, Crimesider reported.

Paul Threlkeld, an attorney representing the Bell family, told Crimesider at the time that there's no evidence to indicate their involvement.

"The case is built solely on suspicion, innuendo and rumor, not evidence," Threlkeld said in a statement.

No charges have been filed in the case.

Court records show that the Justice Department filed legal motions Oct. 16 asking the presiding judge in the civil lawsuit to stop all depositions and other evidence gathering by attorneys in the case for 180 days.

Tom Withers, a former federal prosecutor who now practices criminal defense and civil law in Savannah, said the Justice Department sometimes intervenes in civil cases to protect a criminal case in which existing charges are awaiting prosecution. He said applying that strategy to the Johnson case, in which no one has been charged, "strikes me as bizarre."

"It strikes me as improper, quite frankly, that the government would be trying to stick its nose into the Superior Court case," Withers said. "They've had plenty of time to resolve their investigation. I've just never seen it before."

It's unclear exactly why federal authorities want to intervene in the wrongful death suit. The Justice Department's legal motions were heavily redacted by court officials before being made public. Withers said they likely deal with a grand jury investigation that is protected as secret by federal and state laws.

Moore did not immediately return an email message seeking comment.

Superior Court Judge J. Richard Porter III had no written orders filed with the court clerk as of Tuesday afternoon.

Brice Ladson, an attorney for the brothers accused in the civil case, said in an email that lawyers began questioning Johnson's parents under oath Monday and that depositions were scheduled to continue Tuesday.

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