Paulk called the teenager’s death a “weird accident,” telling CNN, “there is nothing to substantiate a homicide.”
“Nothing criminal happened,” he added.
The body of 17-year-old Johnson was found upside down in a mat in Lowndes County High School in January 2013. Months after his death, Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office investigators ruled it was an accident and closed the case. Lowndes County is in southern Georgia.
That initial investigation concluded that Johnson accidentally slipped into the center of the mat while reaching for a shoe and got stuck. An autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined the cause of Johnson’s death was accidental positional asphyxia.
“After extensive investigation into this tragic event, federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson’s civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime,” it said in a statement.
Paulk, who was not part of the sheriff’s office at the time of Johnson’s death, requested the evidence gathered during the federal probe in April 2019 as part of his re-examination of the case, but federal investigators initially declined his request.
Eventually, after a November 2020 visit by the Johnson family with federal investigators, that request was granted and the Justice Department turned over its investigative material to the sheriff’s office.
That material included grand jury testimony, results from an autopsy conducted by federal authorities and additional digital evidence.
The sheriff said he spent 15 months reading “every page” in that file, but found that those did not show “any criminal action whatsoever.”
The teen’s parents say they are not convinced.
“We have not had faith in Lowndes County. We knew what the outcome would be from the very beginning,” Kendrick’s father, Kenneth Johnson, told CNN. “You can’t do an investigation with the same investigators who covered it up. They’re not going to uncover something that they covered up.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” he added.
CNN has requested a copy of the synopsis of the sheriff’s report. The office was not able to immediately send a copy, but verified the authenticity of a copy posted by the Valdosta Daily Times newspaper.
“I am quite sure that there will still be a contingent that will believe there was foul play,” the sheriff wrote in the report. “I encourage everyone to study ALL the evidence in this file before forming an opinion.”
The US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia did not have a comment when reached by CNN.
The Johnson family plans to hold an event to respond to the report outside the sheriff’s office on Thursday, the family told CNN.