Decision expected in probe of star's death

Dan Wetzel

A grand jury in George County (Miss.) will announce Thursday whether there should be any criminal indictments in the death of high school football star Billey Joe Johnson.

The 17-year-old Johnson, a highly recruited running back out of George County High School, died Dec. 8 of a gunshot wound to the head during an early-morning police stop after running a red light. The sheriff's department contends the shot was self-inflicted. Johnson's family and friends believe otherwise.

"There's no way my son committed suicide," said father Billey Joe Johnson Sr. "Someone murdered my boy."

Tony Lawrence, the Jackson County (Miss.) district attorney handling the state's investigation, has vowed to be thorough and not pressed by "any timeline other than that which leads to the truth."

The grand jury could order the state to press criminal charges against some party, ask for continued investigation, or rule that there isn't enough evidence to warrant action. It's scheduled to announce its decision at 1:30 p.m. Central time.

George County Sheriff's deputy Joe Sullivan said that, while checking Johnson's license at 5:40 a.m. that day, he heard a blast and saw Johnson fall to the ground as a gun fell on top of the teen. The weapon has not been identified, but Johnson often used a 12-gauge shotgun to hunt.

Sullivan is the only known witness. His patrol car was not equipped with a camera.

Johnson was black. Sullivan is white.

The Johnson family disputes Sullivan's account. They assert that an accidental shooting was impossible, given the known circumstances and their own investigation. They further contend the popular teen with dozens of major college football scholarship offers had too much to live for to commit suicide.

The local branch of the NAACP has conducted its own investigation and "ruled out suicide."

Both the family and the NAACP point to numerous apparent violations of police procedure during both the traffic stop and the ensuing investigation.

Prior to being pulled over, Johnson was identified as a suspect in an attempted break-in at the home of an on-again, off-again girlfriend, although that incident is disputed by the family.

Authorities have released little evidence and offered few comments during a two-month probe by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. The information vacuum has been filled by rumor, speculation and conspiracy theories in a case that has gripped the rural community in southeast Mississippi.

Johnson rushed for more than 4,000 yards at George County High, where he had established himself as one of the nation's top prospects in the Class of 2010. He was being recruited by national powers Alabama, Notre Dame, LSU and others, and had told family and friends he planned on committing to Auburn University.

Lawrence had nearly three dozen witnesses appear before a 20-person grand jury during a marathon session Monday in Lucedale, the county seat.

An estimated 100 onlookers gathered throughout the day outside the red brick courthouse. The Johnson's family attorney, Jerome Carter of the Johnnie Cochran Law Firm's Mobile, Ala. office, said he expects an even bigger crowd when a decision is reached.

Carter said the family is eager to see the evidence gathered by the state, including the autopsy report. It has been shut out of all official information and many witnesses, including Deputy Sullivan and the girlfriend. Regardless of the grand jury's conclusion, Carter said a civil suit is possible, based on the evidence that comes forward.