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Kendrick Johnson case provides cautionary tale in child fatality investigations

J. David Miller presides as the District Attorney for the Valdosta-based Southern Judicial Circuit and is part of the Child Death Fatality Review Panel.
J. David Miller presides as the District Attorney for the Valdosta-based Southern Judicial Circuit and is part of the Child Death Fatality Review Panel.
Valdosta Daily Times

In the Sunday, March 9 edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) a special report provided an in-depth analysis about the State of Georgia's Child Fatality Review Panel and its individual county committees.

There were 464 child death investigations submitted in 2012 by county review committees statewide and the the AJC special report detailed how the panel had struggled to provide insight on those child deaths and how future fatalities may be prevented.

The report from Georgia's largest newspaper said that the work from the Child Fatality Review Panel in regard to those 464 individual case reviews was an 'empty exercise' and said the following:

..."In most cases, the county committees' work was superficial and slow.."

Plus these findings were presented:

Nearly 500 out of the state's 940 child fatalities in 2012 were not reviewed and were attributed to causes like disease or premature birth. However, 10 of those deaths were classified as homicides, eight were suicides and seven children drowned.

The state Legislature created Child Fatality Review panels for each of the state's 159 counties in the late 1980's.

Committees have a broad mandate to study failures by government agencies and to seek changes that would correct mistakes.

What is the Child Fatality Review Panel?

* The Panel provides direction and oversight for the local Child Fatality Review (CFR) committees.

* The purpose of the CFR committees is to provide a confidential forum to determine the cause and circumstances around child deaths. The work of the CFR committees is:

* To accurately identify and uniformly report the cause and manner of every child death.

* To identify circumstances surrounding deaths that could prevent future deaths and initiate preventive efforts.

* To promote collaboration and coordination among the participating agencies.

* To propose needed changes in legislation, policies and procedures.

The AJC report suggests most of the investigations in 2012 resulted in nothing happening.

.."Not a single report among the 464 delved into mistakes by DFACS or other agencies. Just two reports requested additional investigation by police or other authorities."

How broken is Georgia's criminal justice system in tandem with child death investigations? The handling of the Kendrick Johnson case by the State of Georgia provides a cautionary tale of how serious reform is needed.

2014 is an election year and a change in who is Governor (Nathan Deal) and Attorney General (Sam Olens) along with the members of the General Assembly can have an impact in how child death investigations are handled.

On a side note, Georgia received an overall grade of an "F" in regard to corruption according to a recent report that evaluated a variety of categories ranging from public access to judicial accountability.

Georgia did become the first state in the nation to create committees for each county to examine every death of a child. Subsequently, other states had followed the Peach State's lead.

Johnson was only 17 years old when he was found inside one of twenty-one gym mats at Lowndes County High School on January 11, 2013.

Local authorities and the State of Georgia conclude accident, but many suggest it was foul play.

Kendrick Johnson's death is currently under investigation by Michael Moore, the U.S. Attorney of the Middle District of Georgia in Macon.

One would think the mysterious death of Kendrick Johnson would be a priority to J. David Miller, but he didn't make a public statement about the case until three months later after local protests and a public statement on local television from Lowndes Coroner Bill Watson was made.

Watson said in April 2013 the crime scene was compromised by local authorities which includes the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office and the Lowndes-Valdosta Regional Crime Lab.

Miller didn't call the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to make a formal request for assistance on January 11, 2013 when Kendrick Johnson's body was found. Generally, the District Attorney would request the GBI, but in this case the Thomasville-GBI field office was called by Captain Wanda Edwards of the Lowndes Sheriff's Office.

Coincidentally, J. David Miller, the district attorney for the Valdosta-based Southern Judicial district since 1997 also serves as a member of the Prosecuting Attorney's Council of Georgia and vice chairman of the State Child Fatality Review Panel.

Yes, Miller is a part of this same State Child Fatality Review Panel in which its committee's work was seen as 'superficial and slow'.

There is an adage or saying, if you are not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Does this apply to Miller and the people who represent these committees that investigate child deaths?

The report also states:

"..Perhaps most significant, almost three-fourths of all reports contained no recommendations for preventing other deaths--one of the primary purposes for the reviews."

In April 2013, Miller had released a public statement via a 'letter to the editor' or 'guest editorial' to the Valdosta Daily Times just one day after several hundred citizens assembled for a prayer vigil at 327 N. Ashley Street in downtown Valdosta in support of Kendrick Johnson.

Miller expressed in his guest editorial that "I want to share some information that may be helpful in understanding the process".

Miller, a Republican, cites budgetary cuts over past few years as one of the reasons why last year's GBI lab report pertaining to Kendrick Johnson was delayed. Eventually, the report was released in early May 2013.

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