Feds seek to pause civil lawsuit in Georgia gym mat death

AP News
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Posted: Oct 27, 2015 2:00 PM

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Federal prosecutors who have spent nearly two years investigating the death of a 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 16-year-old Kendrick Johnson 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.

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.

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.

The Associated Press is not naming the accused brothers because they have not been charged with any crimes.