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Georgia board: Nothing illegal in filling Kendrick Johnson's body with newspaper

6:47 PM, Jan 16, 2014   |    comments
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A state probe into how Kendrick Johnson's organs were removed from his body and replaced with newspaper has yielded few answers for the family of the Valdosta, Georgia, teen who was found dead in his high school gymnasium a year ago.

Johnson was found dead in a rolled-up gym mat at his high school on January 11, 2013. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted an autopsy and ruled the death accidental, but his family questioned the ruling and had his body exhumed for a second autopsy.

At the second autopsy, it was discovered that his organs were missing and his body cavity was filled with newspaper.

"No determination could be made whether the organs were transferred to the funeral establishment with the body," the Georgia Board of Funeral Service concluded Thursday in a letter addressed to Johnson's mother.

The letter further states that while filling a body cavity with newspaper may be a "practice that in the past was generally accepted, and that some embalmers may continue today" -- and that there are more acceptable alternatives that the board would encourage funeral professionals to use -- it is not illegal to use newspaper.

"Legislation or regulation does not address the practice or prohibit funeral professionals from filling a cavity with newspaper; therefore, the practice while certainly not a 'best practice,' is not a violation of the law," the letter states.

In closing its investigation, the board states that it "may consider appropriate regulations concerning this issue in the near future."

Neither the funeral home nor Johnson's family could be immediately reached for comment.

The family's complaint, filed last month with the board, a division of the secretary of state's office, alleges that Harrington Funeral Home in Valdosta mishandled Johnson's body and specifically accuses director Antonio Harrington of helping obscure the teen's cause of death.

The funeral home's attorney, Roy Copeland, said in an October letter to CNN that coroner Bill Watson has already stated that "the accusations and innuendo regarding Mr. Harrington's involvement in the disposition of young Mr. Johnson's internal organs are baseless."

According to "The Principles and Practices of Embalming," a sentence of which was included in Copeland's October letter to CNN, when the organs have been removed in an autopsy, the person handling the body should dry the cavity, "dusting it with hardening compound or embalming powder and then filling it with dry, clean sawdust or cotton mixed with a small quantity of hardening compound or embalming powder."

Copeland conceded at a November interview that newspaper was not listed, but he added, "nor is it precluded as one type of foreign substance that may be introduced into a body for purposes of building it up for public display."

The family's complaint alleges that when Johnson's body was exhumed for the second autopsy, "all of our son's inner organs, including his brain, were missing." CNN was the first to report the development in October.

Harrington has previously told the family that the organs were missing when he took custody of the body after the GBI autopsy, and Copeland said last month that the funeral home "absolutely, positively" did not receive the organs.

"There is no collusion between Mr. Harrington and any law enforcement. In fact, I'm appalled that anyone would even suggest that," Copeland told CNN.

Harrington Funeral Home never informed the family the organs were missing, and the GBI said it replaced all of the organs after its autopsy, the complaint alleges.

Harrington initially said "one or two organs might be missing," according to the complaint, but in an October 4 letter to the family's attorney, C.B. King Jr., Harrington said the organs had been "destroyed" and "discarded ... before the body was sent back to Valdosta," where the funeral home took custody of the body.


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