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Mom doesn't buy ruling on Miss. player shooting

Thursday, February 12, 2009

By SHELIA BYRD

Associated Press Writer

LUCEDALE, Miss. -- The family of star Mississippi high school football player Billey Joe Johnson isn't done pressing for an explanation of how the 17-year-old accidentally shot and killed himself with his own shotgun during a traffic stop, as a grand jury has concluded.

"I ain't buying that," said his mother, Annette Johnson, after the 16-member grand jury ruled Thursday. "We are going further and we are going higher."

Her pursuit is joined by her attorney, who plans to continue his own investigation, and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which said it would submit evidence to the U.S. Justice Department and ask for a federal probe.

Johnson, 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 wound was self-inflicted.

The grand jury, after listening to 30 witnesses and looking at forensic evidence for weeks, concurred, saying the teen accidentally shot himself. The report said no evidence, including DNA, indicated the deputy who pulled Johnson over had fired the shotgun and that 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 death has inflamed suspicion, with Johnson's family and the NAACP 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 at playing in college and maybe the NFL.

Johnson family attorney Jerome Carter said he was glad the grand jury did not rule the teen committed suicide but still had concerns that make his own investigation necessary.

The report said Sullivan, who is white, did have gunpowder residue on his hands but that it came from him handling his service revolver the morning of the shooting. Based on the lack of Johnson's blood on Sullivan's clothes and on eyewitness reports, the jury concluded 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 report by the grand jury, made up of 14 white and two black members. It did not detail how Johnson accidentally discharged the gun, which he had with him because he was going hunting.

George County Sheriff Garry Welford said Thursday the 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 the 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.

Attorney Carter said he hoped his team will be allowed to soon 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 after the ruling in Lucedale.

Chadrick Jack, sports manager for the school district who also works at the funeral home that 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.

George County District Attorney Tony Lawrence disagreed.

"It's a tragic accident, and I know it's hard for some people to accept that," Lawrence said.



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