(CNN) — Replacing the internal organs of Kendrick Johnson — the south Georgia teen found dead in his high school gym a year ago — with newspaper is not a “best practice” for any mortician, but it’s not illegal either, a state board wrote Thursday.
“Legislation or regulation does not address the practice or prohibit funeral professionals from filling a cavity with newspaper,” the Georgia Board of Funeral Service said in a letter addressed to Johnson’s mother. “Therefore, the practice … is not a violation of the law.”
This finding yielded few answers for Johnson’s family, including where his organs actually ended up. On that matter, the board said only that it couldn’t determine if “the organs were transferred to the funeral (home) with the body.”
Neither the funeral home nor Johnson’s family immediately responded Thursday to CNN’s request for comment on the state finding.
The family didn’t even know the late teen’s brain, heart, lungs, liver and other viscera were missing until the middle of last year, when an autopsy they’d requested was conducted June 15 by Dr. William R. Anderson with Forensic Dimensions in Heathrow, Florida.
This was actually a second autopsy on the three-sport athlete after he was found dead January 11, 2013, in a rolled-up gym mat inside Lowndes County High School in Valdosta, Georgia.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation handled the first one, then ruled the death accidental.
And the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, while not commenting on every twist and turn in the case, has repeatedly stood by its original determination that Johnson died by accident after getting caught up reaching for his shoe. CNN examined the 522-page police file and found that investigators spoke to 111 people, including 18 on the day Johnson’s body was found.
“It was not a rash decision that was leapt to,” Lt. Stryde Jones told CNN in May, the day after his investigators closed their case. “We’ve drawn this out, done a thorough investigation, and we think we’ve covered all bases.”
But the disbelieving Johnson family pushed in court, leading to a judge’s decision May 1 to grant their request to exhume their son’s body for an independent autopsy at their expense.
Anderson determined in that second autopsy that Johnson suffered blunt force trauma to the right neck and soft tissues, “consistent with inflicted injury,” seemingly defying the authorities ruling it was accidental.
It’s what he didn’t find — the late teen’s internal organs — that prompted his family to formally ask the state to investigate the handling of their son’s body. CNN was the first to report the development in October.
That complaint alleged that Harrington Funeral Home mishandled the body and specifically accuses director Antonio Harrington of helping obscure the teen’s cause of death.
Specifically, it alleged that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said it replaced all of the organs after its autopsy.
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., the funeral home director 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.
However, the funeral home’s attorney, Roy Copeland, told CNN in October that coroner Bill Watson has already called the “accusations and innuendo regarding Mr. Harrington’s involvement in the disposition of young Mr. Johnson’s internal organs … baseless.”
According to “The Principles and Practices of Embalming” — a sentence of which was included in Copeland’s October letter to CNN — when organs are 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 is not listed as an option in this process, 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.”
In fact, the Georgia Board of Funeral Service said in its letter Thursday that “filling a body cavity is a necessary preparation to present a deceased body for public viewing.”
The state agency also added there are products available to do this “that are more acceptable than newspaper,” which it notes was relatively common in the past.
“The Board may consider appropriate regulations concerning this issue in the near future,” it wrote about the practice of filling a body cavity with newspaper.
So what can the Johnson family do now?
For starters, they can take solace in the fact that federal authorities are investigating their son’s death. To this point, the FBI seized the original hard drives from the Lowndes High surveillance system last month, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation. And the FBI has been in South Georgia conducting interviews, including an almost three-hour sitdown with the Johnsons in the city of Thomasville.
And the state funeral board’s finding that funeral home staff didn’t commit a crime, and its decision to close its case, doesn’t mean the family can’t go after them in court.
The state funeral board told them in its letter Thursday: “You may wish to consult with your personal attorney or a court of appropriate jurisdiction to determine what civil remedies may be available to you.”
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