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U.S. attorney opens review of Georgia teen's wrestling mat death

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A federal prosecutor launched a formal review on Thursday to determine if the death of a Georgia teenager found in a rolled-up wrestling mat in his school gym in January warrants a criminal investigation.

An official autopsy concluded that the suffocation of Kendrick Johnson, 17, was accidental, but the teen's parents have called for a further probe because they suspect foul play.

"I am convinced that sufficient basis exists for my office to conduct a formal review of the facts and investigations surrounding the death of Kendrick Johnson," said Michael Moore, the U.S. attorney for Georgia's Middle District.

Moore said his office has been gathering and reviewing evidence in the case for several months, and the FBI is cooperating with those efforts.

He said he would ask the FBI to open a civil rights or any other appropriate criminal investigation, should his review find that sufficient evidence exists to proceed.

"I do this with an open mind, neither accepting nor rejecting the opinions of anyone who has previously investigated the circumstances of Mr. Johnson's death," Moore said.

The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office closed its case after ruling Johnson's death accidental. An autopsy by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded the teen suffocated at his Valdosta school after becoming trapped in an upright wrestling mat while trying to retrieve a tennis shoe, authorities said.

But Johnson's parents said a second autopsy conducted by a private pathologist they hired concluded that the death was caused by blunt force trauma. The teen's father said he believes his son was murdered before his body was placed inside the wrestling mat.

On Wednesday, a south Georgia judge ordered the release of videotape from school surveillance cameras sought by Johnson's family. Ben Crump, an attorney for the family, said authorities have provided 15 minutes of surveillance video, with more on the way.

The family also is asking a judge to order an investigation by the coroner, Crump said. They applauded Moore's announcement, which Crump called "a major development in getting to the truth."

The Lowndes County sheriff's lieutenant who investigated Johnson's death did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on Thursday.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Gunna Dickson)

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