OXFORD, Miss. — The U.S. Justice Department said Friday there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges in the death of a Mississippi high school football player who died of a gunshot after he was stopped by a deputy in 2008.
Billy Joe Johnson’s death has inflamed suspicion, with his family and the NAACP rejecting any notion that the black teen committed suicide. They said the 17-year-old Johnson had too much to live for, including a chance at playing in college, to have killed himself during a traffic stop.
A grand jury ruled the death an accidental shooting, declining to move the case forward. The Justice Department, along with other federal officials, reviewed eyewitness statements, dispatch recordings and forensic reports, and also couldn’t find any wrongdoing by the officer.
“The evidence indicates that less than two minutes after Mr. Johnson was pulled over, a gun was fired. Four eyewitnesses state that the deputy was in his patrol car, with the door shut, when the shot was fired. In addition, both the state coroner and independent federal medical experts have concluded that Mr. Johnson shot himself,” the release said.
Federal officials said they informed Johnson’s family Friday, and a local civil rights leader indicated they had run out of options.
“We feel like the full story died on that roadside and the truth may never come to light. We were hoping that the federal government would have been able to find some type of impropriety,” said Curley Clark, president of the Gulf Coast chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The probe was conducted by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI.
“The Department of Justice asked independent medical experts to review the autopsy performed by the state coroner and to conduct an independent analysis of Mr. Johnson’s death,” the release said.
On Dec. 8, 2008, Deputy Joe Sullivan stopped Johnson for running a red light near Lucedale in south Mississippi. As he went back to the cruiser to run a driver’s license check, Sullivan said Johnson shot himself.
Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Johnson’s parents, Annette and Billey Joe Sr., were unsuccessful Friday. A number for the family was no longer in service.
Johnson was a junior running back at George County High was considered a top potential college football recruit. His head football coach, Al Jones, said the Justice Department announcement “will put a lot of closure to it now. We have to rely on our justice system. That’s all you can say.”