Teen Death Investigation That Inspired 'Law & Order: SVU' Episode to Be Reopened

The case of Kendrick Johnson, whose death in January 2013 loosely inspired a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode, has been re-opened. Johnson, 17, was found dead inside a rolled, upright gym mat at the Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia and his death was initially ruled an accident. However, his family believes he was murdered. On March 10, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said he was reopening the investigation after receiving documents from the U.S. Justice Department's 2016 investigation. A few weeks later, the family claimed it received an audiotape from someone who confessed to murdering Johnson.

Paulk, who was retired at the time of Johnson's death and returned to office in 2016, told NPR his office reopened the case on March 5. They finally received the documents they requested from the Justice Department. "I'm not accusing anybody of anything, but I want to start fresh with it and look at it all the way through," Paulk said in another interview with WXIA in Atlanta. "I think the community deserves it."

Paulk has been trying to get the federal documents since April 2019, but his first request was denied. However, Johnson's family continued to press for more answers. Marcus Coleman, a community activist now serving as the Johnson family's spokesman, said their renewed push for more answers in Johnson's death started last fall, inspired by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. "As I engaged in community activities myself here and across the country, it just never sat well with me the way that Kendrick Johnson's case was closed," Coleman told NPR. "And the uprising — as I like to call it — this summer just gave me the energy to pursue reopening this case."

While Coleman hoped the federal investigation could be re-opened, Paul was working to re-open his office's case. in February, they received 17 boxes of evidence. On March 5, Paulk met with Coleman and Johnson's family to confirm the case was re-opened. Coleman said the family was "cautiously optimistic," considering their past letdowns. One of those letdowns came in June 2016, when the U.S. Justice Department closed its case without filing federal criminal charges because it could not find enough evidence to prove someone killed Johnson beyond a reasonable doubt or that Johnson's death was racially motivated. Last year, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation also closed its case.

On March 19, Coleman told First Coast News the Johnson family obtained an audiotape confession from someone who claimed to have killed Johnson. "I was young and stupid, man, Kendrick didn't deserve that...they're going to catch me," the transcript from the tape read. The man who recorded it was not identified, but the tipster received $1,000 from the Johnson family. They have turned the tape over to Paul's office. "I told them I would also look at it, but I think there are people who would do some really cruel things and I hope it’s not a scam," Paulk said.