Local Civil Rights Activist Discusses Bell’s Scholarship Revocation
Allison Ericson & Chip Harp, Valdosta Today:
VALDOSTA — As the community still struggles with the controversy over the death of Kendrick Johnson, facts and evidence seem to get clouded in a sea of rumor and innuendo.
Evidence of that came just this week as a teen was indicted for providing false statements to law enforcement regarding Johnson’s death.
Wednesday, Florida State University officially withdrew Lowndes High School football linebacker, Brian Bell’s scholarship due to a wrongful death civil suit involving his classmate, Johnson. Last month Johnson’s parents filed a $100 million lawsuit against Bell, his brother, their father, Richard Bell, an FBI agent and 38 defendants.
On Wednesday, Jan. 28, a group of Bell’s supporters went to Tallahassee to meet with FSU president John Thrasher and other university officials in hopes of persuading them to keep Bell’s scholarship.
“NOT ONLY FRIVOLOUS, IT IS MALICIOUS”
The lead investigator for the Valdosta Southern Christian Leadership Conference and former NAACP member, Leigh Touchton, shared with Valdosta Today her experiences being involved in the case. Due to her tenure with two civil rights organizations, Touchton provides a unique perspective to the controversy.
It is one of the reasons the Bells’ asked her to attend the meeting at FSU in support of their son.
“There were nine of us from Georgia who came to meet with FSU President John Thrasher, to try to explain the truth of the situation. We talked for almost two hours; we thought we were making progress. The facts are solid, the $100 million civil suit is not only frivolous, it is malicious,” Touchton said.
“Then the FSU attorney said that Ben Crump wields great influence on the school campus”, she said, “he walks over to the campus weekly, meets with numerous student groups, conducts projects with these same groups, and basically said that FSU would be an unhealthy environment for Brian Bell.”
In an ESPN article, LHS coach Randy McPherson released a statement Wednesday morning. “Last Wednesday morning Coach Jimbo Fisher told me that the FSU Athletic Director and the President would not let him give Brian Bell a scholarship,” the statement quoted McPherson as saying.
Those wishing to discredit Bell have succeeded.
“NO CREDIBLE EVIDENCE”
Since January 2013 the case has spiraled off into two different directions: those who believe Johnson’s death was a murder and those who believe it was an accident.
Touchton said she resigned from her NAACP position when, as she says the “Georgia NAACP over-ruled the Valdosta branch and decided to publicize the death of Kendrick Johnson as a murder.”
“In the death of Kendrick Johnson, the Georgia NAACP completely ignored mountains of evidence and instead chose to listen to two attorneys who have essentially tried this case in the “court of public opinion,” Touchton said. “To date, there is still no credible evidence to support any of the outrageous accusations made by Chevene King and Ben Crump and their clients, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson.”
Touchton said she took the role of supporting Brian Bell when she realized the teenager’s reputation was being ruined and his civil rights were being ignored.
“Civil rights are for everyone, white and black. Brian Bell and his family, as well as all the people named by the Johnson family in their $100 million civil lawsuit, are innocent and the evidence proving their innocence is overwhelming. One of our civil rights is to be deemed innocent until proven guilty. One of our civil rights is due process under the law.”
“ALL THE EVIDENCE…CLEARLY PROVES [THE] DEATH WAS AN ACCIDENT”
After the death of Johnson, Touchton was given access to LHS employees, tours of the gym, crime lab, and the case file as well as multiple face-to-face interviews with attorneys and public officials.
“All the evidence documented in the forensic investigation, and most importantly the GBI Medical Examiner autopsy, clearly proved that Kendrick Johnson’s death was a tragic accident,” Touchton said.
In July 2013, Touchton was on a telephone conference with 50 Georgia NAACP branch presidents, secretaries, state officers, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson and their attorney, Chevene King.
During the phone call, Touchton said she “listened for a full hour as Chevene King and the Johnsons gave false statements.”
“I knew these statements were false because of the interviews our NAACP branch had conducted, our branch’s review of the case file, and I was holding the GBI Medical Examiner autopsy in front of me,” Touchton said. “I was astounded to listen to Chevene King give a fantastical description of medical findings that were untrue and to also hear him state that the GBI Medical Examiner’s office and the school system were both ‘stonewalling’ and would not release crucial documents.”
Touchton contacted the Georgia NAACP State president to discuss the false statements, but they had already decided that Kendrick Johnson’s death was a murder and that local Valdosta officials were taking part in a murder conspiracy.
“I and most of the Valdosta NAACP officers immediately resigned. None of us were going to publicly accuse anyone of murder when the evidence clearly showed that Kendrick Johnson’s death was a tragic accident,” Touchton said.
“When I realized that an innocent family was being falsely accused, I decided I would advocate for this family. Fairness and equality are for everyone. I’ve spoken out to the best of my ability, and I’ve tried to explain to various national civil rights leaders that the claim of murder is false.”
Touchton shares her knowledge regarding this case in hopes of convincing others to come to a conclusion based on fact and not rumor.
“I would like all the fathers out there to try to imagine how they would feel if this were happening to them or to their children. But even when the civil lawsuit is over and all 37 people and the entire City of Valdosta are vindicated through our court system, the thousands of social media posts will still be out there,” Touchton said. “I believe these ugly public attacks will follow all of these people the rest of their lives, because once accusations like this are made in print, they are there forever.”
“People’s good reputations have been destroyed.”