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January 18, 2014

State: Funeral home broke no laws in Lowndes teen’s case

VALDOSTA — A south Georgia funeral home broke no laws when it used newspapers to stuff the body of a Valdosta teenager found dead last year inside a rolled up gym mat at his school, state regulators concluded in a report sent to the teen's parents.

The family of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson of Valdosta filed a complaint with the Georgia Board of Funeral Service last year after newspaper was found in the place of his missing organs when the body was exhumed for a second autopsy. Johnson's parents, who are fighting to have their son's death declared a homicide after authorities concluded it was a freak accident, said they were outraged and found the funeral home's use of newspapers to be disrespectful.

Attorneys for the Johnson family released a letter from the board saying it found Harrington Funeral Home broke no state law. However, the board also noted that using newspaper to fill a body cavity is not considered a "best practice" and that other materials are "more acceptable than newspaper," the Valdosta Daily Times reported Saturday.

Roy Copeland, an attorney for Harrington Funeral Home, said its owners were "certainly happy" with regulators' finding that it did nothing illegal.

Students at Lowndes High School discovered Johnson's body Jan. 11, 2013, inside a rolled up gym mat propped against the wall beside the bleachers. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner concluded he died from positional asphyxia, meaning his body was stuck upside down and he was unable to breathe. Sheriff's investigators concluded Johnson got trapped in the mat while reaching for a gym shoe that had fallen inside.

Johnson's parents insist someone must have killed him and have pushed to reopen the case. The U.S. attorney for middle Georgia is reviewing the investigation with help from the FBI.

It's still unclear what happened to Johnson's internal organs after the GBI autopsy. The GBI has said it returned the organs to the body before sending it to the funeral home. But the funeral home has said the organs were missing when the body arrived. Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson has said many of Johnson's organs were deemed too badly decomposed to be preserved and had to be disposed of before the body was embalmed.

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