Grand jury: Gunshot death an accident
LUCEDALE, Miss. -- A star Mississippi high school football player accidentally shot himself with his shotgun after he was pulled over during a traffic stop, a grand jury ruled Thursday.
Billey Joe Johnson, 17, a junior at southern Mississippi's George County High School, died of a wound to the left side of his head on Dec. 8 after a deputy pulled him over for running a red light.
After an initial investigation, authorities said the blast had been self-inflicted. The grand jury was looking at whether it was an accident, suicide or even a possible slaying.
It concluded there was no forensic evidence, including DNA, that indicated the deputy who pulled Johnson over had fired the shotgun and said no other people were involved in the shooting.
"The grand jury finds ... that Deputy Joe Sullivan was in his patrol car at the time of Billey Joe Johnson Jr.'s death," the ruling said.
The mystery surrounding the athlete's death has inflamed suspicion within the community, with Johnson's family and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People rejecting any notion that the black teen committed suicide. They said the talented running back once clocked at 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash had too much to live for, including a chance of playing in college and maybe the NFL.
His mother, Annette Johnson, said she believes the 16-member grand jury is wrong.
"I ain't buying that," she said, surrounded by supporters at the George County Courthouse. "We are going further and we are going higher."
Johnson family attorney Jerome Carter said he was glad the grand jury did not rule the teen's death was a suicide but still had concerns and that he would continue his own investigation.
The grand jury report said Sullivan, who is white, did have gunpowder residue on his hands but concluded it came from him handling his service revolver the morning of the shooting. They said based on the lack of Johnson's blood on Sullivan's clothes and eyewitness reports that the deputy could not have shot the athlete.
Johnson's hands also tested positive for gunpowder residue and there were no other injuries on his body, according to the grand jury report. The report did not detail how Johnson accidentally discharged the gun that he had with him because he had planned a hunting trip. Police have said that by the time other officers arrived, Johnson was lying on the ground outside of the driver's side door with a shotgun on top of him, the barrel pointing toward his head.
George County Sheriff Garry Welford said Thursday that his department's investigation found that after Sullivan took the teen's license and went back to his patrol car to check it, Johnson squatted down to move the shotgun from underneath the seat of his truck. He grabbed the barrel and the gun went off, said Welford, who did not know why the teen was trying to move the gun.
By the time other officers arrived, Johnson was lying on the ground outside of the driver's side door with a shotgun on top of him, the barrel pointing toward his head, police have said. The grand jury report said the safety was off and one spent round was in the chamber.
Carter has said his independent investigation of the case will continue and hopes his team will be allowed to review the autopsy and other evidence.
"I'm very concerned with Detective Sullivan testing having gunshot residue on both of his hands having just logged in being on duty," Carter said.
Dozens of people -- mostly family members and friends -- prayed outside the courthouse in Lucedale before going inside to hear the report read aloud.
The NAACP said it would submit its evidence to the U.S. Justice Department and ask for a federal probe.
Chadrick Jack, sports manager for the school district and the funeral home director who handled Johnson's arrangements, said he was disappointed in the ruling. He said Johnson's wound looked like it was made by a smaller weapon because a shotgun would have done more damage.
"I've worked at the funeral home. I saw Billey Joe's wounds. And that wasn't an accident," Jack said.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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