CRIME

Judge: Parents owe $292,000 for suit in son's gym mat death

The parents of a Georgia teenager found dead inside a rolled-up gym mat and their attorney must pay more than $292,000 in legal fees to dozens of people they accused of foul play in a lawsuit that was later dropped, a judge ruled.

The body of Kendrick Johnson, 17, of Valdosta was found in 2013 by classmates at Lowndes High School. Sheriff's investigators concluded Johnson died in a freak accident, stuck upside down and unable to breathe while trying to retrieve a shoe that fell inside the upright mat.

But Johnson's parents have long insisted he was murdered. Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson filed a 2015 lawsuit accusing two brothers of killing their son. They also said law enforcement and school officials covered up the crime.

The Johnsons dropped the suit last year. The 39 defendants they had sued asked the judge to order the family to pay their attorney fees and related court costs. They initially said they were owed about $850,000.

Superior Court Judge Richard Porter had the lawyers take a closer look at their billings. In a ruling Monday, he ordered the Johnsons and their attorney, Chevene King, to pay $292,105. He cited sworn depositions in which attorneys questioned Johnson's parents in October 2015.

"Their testimony shows that they had no evidence to support their claims that the (brothers) killed Johnson or that any of the other defendants engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the cause or manner of Johnson's death," Porter wrote.

The judge's order also holds the Johnsons' attorney responsible for filing a "groundless" lawsuit and taking actions to delay rulings in the case. King did not immediately return a phone call Wednesday.

The Justice Department spent 2 ½ years investigating Johnson's strange death and ultimately provided no answers, just a statement saying federal investigators "found insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges."

The Associated Press has not named the brothers accused by the Johnsons because they were never charged with any crimes.

It could be tough for the people sued by the Johnsons to recoup their money. At the time of his son's death, Kenneth Johnson worked as a truck driver and his wife drove a school bus.

Georgia allows parties owed money in legal judgments to seek garnishment of wages and bank accounts, or to go after a debtor's property.

Jim Elliott, the attorney who represented Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine and several of his deputies, said he plans to pursue collection "through appropriate legal channels."

"The judge's order vindicated my clients in this case and shows that they have been falsely accused of covering up the death of Kendrick Johnson," Elliott said.