Activists from across the country are asking Georgia's governor to support an investigation into the death of Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old discovered dead in a high school gymnasium almost a year ago. His body was found in a rolled-up gym mat.
State investigators ruled out foul play, but Johnson's parents don't believe it.
For 11 months, his family has gathered on the street outside the county judicial complex in Valdosta, Ga. His family sits in folding chairs bundled with scarves and gloves against the brisk wind and chilly rain. Kendrick's mother, grandmother and his father, Kenneth Johnson, are here.
"A lot of people said, 'Keep pushing.' We know justice is coming. Sooner or later, it's coming," Johnson says.
They display poster-size photos of the teen. Before he died, Kendrick poses in his basketball uniform. An after picture shows a swollen mass of facial tissue that's barely recognizable.
"We just want the truth. We're gonna stay here until we get the truth of what happened to our son," Johnson says.
There are many questions about how the teen ended up inside a rolled-up mat in the gym at Lowndes High School in Valdosta. Kendrick was found with his head facing down inside the mat, his feet sticking out of the top. He disappeared one afternoon and students discovered his body the next morning.
"It's mind boggling that a child could go to a school and he should disappear during school hours while over 3,000 students were present, and nobody has come forward to say, 'This is what happened,' " says Chevene King, one of the family's attorneys.
At a rally at the Georgia Capitol this week, dozens of civil rights activists called for the governor to order a new investigation. The family has demanded a coroner's inquest for months.
County officials told the parents their son had gone into the mat looking for shoes that he stored there during gym class.
Kendrick Johnson was an athlete. He played football, basketball and ran track. His parents say he would have moved the mat to retrieve his shoes rather than dive into it.
And there are other questions.
The original autopsy said Johnson's death was accidental and the cause was "positional asphyxia." That means he suffocated because of how he was wedged inside the mat.
But the coroner said the crime scene was contaminated, and the Johnson family said the investigation was botched. His parents paid for the body to be exhumed for another autopsy. A private pathologist determined the cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the neck and that it was not accidental.
Kenneth Johnson also told the crowd in Atlanta that the private pathologist conducting the second autopsy found his son's internal organs and clothing were missing. "So I want the justice system to tell me: How is it that all of that going on with his body, someone is not charged with something?" Johnson said.
Video from dozens of cameras inside the school was released, but it didn't show much. Some of the images were blurry, especially from the camera that would have captured the area around the gym mats. Lawyers question whether the video was altered.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the Johnsons, was also involved in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Crump calls the death "a murder mystery" and says further investigation is vital.
"I think it will publicly show that this was not an accident, that this was homicide. This was foul play," Crump says.
But the Georgia Bureau of Investigation says it stands behind the first autopsy. And the local sheriff says the original investigation was conducted properly. Even so, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia has decided to conduct a formal review, which the family welcomes.
Back in downtown Valdosta, lampposts are spun with garland, and holiday snowflakes and palm trees dot North Ashley Street. The playhouse is running a production of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Rev. Floyd Rose, pastor of Serenity Christian Church, is a longtime civil rights activist. His church has offered a $10,000 reward for information about Johnson's death. Rose says the family should stop protesting and wait for the U.S. attorney's report.
"Because we are all hurting and want to see some closure come to this," Rose says.
Others say they understand why the family keeps pushing.
Jeannie Gilson has three children. "They need to be given the answers. I mean, any mother would want to know what would happen to their child," Gilson says.
Johnson's parents say they won't quit seeking answers. Another rally is planned in Valdosta next month, exactly one year after their son's body was discovered.
This week, Congress has been pondering yet another deal with a deadline. Congressional leaders have agreed to a bipartisan budget that would set spending levels for the next two years, and if it passes, as expected, it would mark the first bipartisan budget deal since 2011. News of the deal comes again at the last minute, just as Congress begins packing its bags to adjourn for the holidays.
For many, though, several questions may remain. Why do our elected officials spend so much time hammering out these deals? Why do they seem so tortured? And why does everything have to be done at the eleventh hour?
One answer, surprisingly, may have its roots in mathematics. Author Tim Harford argues that some of the most puzzling (or alarming) negotiating tactics we see from our elected leaders come straight from game theory. And on All Things Considered, he suggests a book to walk us through it.
This Week's Must Read
At times like these, I like to pick up The Strategy of Conflict, by the economist Thomas Schelling. Schelling has lived one of those remarkable 20th century lives: At first a trade negotiator in the wake of WWII; then, one of the most influential military strategists of the Cold War — and eventually, in his 80s, a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
The Strategy of Conflict is a perfect accompaniment to the sequester negotiations. It's a book that uses game theory — initially a highly mathematical tool — in a very human way to understand the strange moves and counter-moves that take place in any struggle for power.
Schelling's focus was war — or as an earlier strategist put it, "the continuation of politics by other means." But Schelling took that famous aphorism and turned it into a fully-fledged theory. Schelling showed that there isn't such a big difference between a political argument and a Cold War standoff. For that matter, he showed that there are important similarities between a suicide bomber and an errant toddler. Henry Kissinger took him seriously — and so did Stanley Kubrick, who turned to Schelling for ideas when developing Dr. Strangelove.
Schelling's ideas can seem cold, but they comfort me: they remind me of three things. First, that sometimes extreme and insane positions are taken for tactical reasons, not because people really are extreme or insane. Second, that even in the most bitter dispute, there is often room to stand together on common ground. And third, that despite the suspicion and the destructive forces at their command, the U.S. and the Soviet Union found ways to get along together. We don't always have to like each other to get things done.
Tim Harford is the author of The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, to be released on January 16.
Hurricane Sandy last year did more harm to coastal cities and homes than any hurricane in U.S. history, except Katrina. Most of that damage has been repaired. But there's other damage that people can't see to the underwater coastline, known as the shore face.
Apparently, Long Island's shore face did remarkably well against the storm of the 21st century.
The shore face is the underwater slope that runs up to the shore. It's shape influences how fast and high water moves onto land. Sandy pushed water up the shore face and into towns and bays. When the water retreated, it sucked all sorts of urban junk back out to sea.
Last January, just months after the storm, NPR joined a crew of scientists on an ice-bedecked research boat to survey the damage to the shore. Shivering inside her car, Beth Christensen from Adelphi University showed me a map of what areas got flooded onshore. The map was dotted with hot spots. "This is a power plant," she said, pointing to the map. "This is a sewage treatment plant; here's another sewage treatment; another sewage treatment plant. Here's runoff coming in from the streets through all of those creeks.
"So all of that [material] combined ends up in those sediments," she explained — sediments now lying somewhere offshore.
Onboard the boat that day was John Goff, from the University of Texas at Austin. He was there to scan the sea floor with radar. In addition to finding polluted sediments, Goff wanted to see if parts of the shore face had been washed away; such damage can spell trouble. The shape of the shore face influences how vulnerable the land is to erosion from waves.
"We're going to expect more storms in the future," Goff says, "so understanding the impact of these storms is really important."
The Texas group bills itself as a "rapid response" team — ocean scientists who swoop in after storms to study the damage to shorelines. After Hurricane Ike in Texas in 2008, Goff found that the storm surge had actually remodeled the shore face, moving huge amounts of sand out to sea.
Not so with Sandy. Now, Goff and his team have results.
"What we found was quite different, and yes it did surprise us," Goff says. The sea floor off Long Island, Goff discovered, has rows of sand ridges — underwater sand dunes up to ten feet high that run parallel to shore for as far as a half-mile.
"I think of these ridges as kind of cushioning the blow," Goff says. "After the hurricane, they were still there. We didn't really see any massive, destructive erosion of the shore face."
Goff says many coastal areas along the eastern and southern U.S. have these underwater sand ridges just offshore. That's going to be important because the sea level is rising. Over time, higher sea levels will eat away at the coastline, undercutting anything that's built there. And during storms, higher sea levels mean it's more likely that wind and waves will push water higher up, onto land. But Goff says these sand ridges seem to slow down erosion and perhaps prevent flooding. That's hopeful news for coastal cities faced with sea level rise.
The news on pollution isn't so good. There were toxic chemicals and metals in the mud at the bottom of estuaries and bays along Long Island. Sandy sucked a lot of that back out into the ocean where it got spread around. The team will continue to track that.
The researchers reported their findings Friday at a San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
There's been a lot of talk about meningitis B lately. That's the type of responsible for outbreaks at Princeton and the University of California in Santa Barbara.
And it got us thinking. How come this form of the illness isn't fazed by the vaccines given routinely to most young people in the U.S.?
This week, Princeton is administering an imported vaccine not approved for general use in this country, with special permission from the Food and Drug Administration.
The vaccine, called Bexsero, is fairly new. Swiss drug giant Novartis, which manufactures the vaccine, completed clinical trials early last year, and got approval to sell the vaccine in Europe last November.
It turns out that the meningitis B bacteria are tricky little things. They have a sugar coating that's very similar to sugars found on the surface of certain cells in the human brain and body.
Dr. Walter Orenstein, associate director of Emory University's vaccine center, says this sugar coating complicates the development of an effective meningitis B vaccine.
The older, more common vaccine (which protects against strains A, C, W-135 and Y) works by training the body's immune cells to recognize the sugar on the meningitis-causing bacteria as something bad, Orenstein tells Shots.
The same approach won't work for the B-type bacteria.
When immune cells encounter the meningitis B sugar coating, they're more likely to identify it as belonging to a friend rather than a foe, Orenstein says. They're used to seeing the same sugar all over the human cells.
There are ways to teach our immune system that the meningitis B coating is bad, but that could be risky, he says. In the hunt for meningitis bacteria, the immune system could start attacking human cells by mistake.
The obvious solution is to train the immune system to recognize meningitis B by some other characteristic. But there are hundreds of strains, and sometimes the only thing they all have in common is that darned sugar coating.
Dr. Andrin Oswald, head of Novartis' vaccine and diagnostics unit, says researchers analyzed the genes of hundreds of meningitis B strains before they found a few chemicals that most of the strains seemed to share.
"But substrates are different around the globe," Oswald tells Shots. And even within a single country, the meningitis strains can change over time. Even so, some protection is better than none, and Oswald says he hopes the FDA will approve Bexsero for broader use in the U.S. sometime soon.
Oswald says the Novartis vaccine protects against at least 70 percent of meningitis B strains — and up to 95 percent of strains in some countries.
The most common side effects include fever, sleepiness and pain at the site of injection.
So Bexsero's not perfect. But Emory's Orenstein says at the moment the Novartis vaccine seems like the best bet. "I think it's as good as we can get for now," he says. "Certainly if I had a kid at Princeton, I'd want my kid to get the vaccine."
Peter Jackson's decision to turn the single volume of The Hobbit into a three-film epic — with a total running time nearly as long as his adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy — was met with considerable skepticism. Did Tolkien's relatively slight book really have enough story to justify stretching it out that much?
The second installment, The Desolation of Smaug, makes it clear that the three-chapter treatment has little to do with making adequate room to fully adapt Tolkein's story — or even, as some have argued, to include material from the original trilogy's considerable appendices. The extra time, it becomes increasingly clear, is primarily about the considerable embellishments devised by Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing. A little infidelity in the process of adaptation can make the material fresh for even the most fervent fans of a classic, and the skill with which this team employed strategic cuts, additions, and composited characters in the original trilogy was part of what made Lord of the Rings work so well.
But as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the company of dwarves continue their quest to reach the Lonely Mountain, confront the dragon Smaug, and return Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to his rightful role of King under the Mountain, it becomes clear that the process of adapting the novel for the screen has mostly become one of padding the source material with extra battles, utterly unnecessary romantic subplots, and material culled from those appendices to give Gandalf more screen time after he leaves the primary quest.
This all essentially serves to distract from the fact that all that really happens in the film is that the company manages to eventually reach the mountain. Sure, they're waylaid in the elven realm of Mirkwood — and the human Lake Town — for a little while on the way. But there's no particular arc here, just nearly three hours of bludgeoning rising action, culminating in a battle sequence invented by the filmmakers to provide an artificial climax.
It often feels as if Jackson and company spent time focus-grouping the previous films, then inserting favorite bits where the source material lacks adequate fan service. So Legolas (Orland Bloom) shows up here, firing arrows while skating dashingly through throngs of foes; we get a new female elven warrior and love-triangle corner in Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly); there's Morgul-weapon poisoning, kingsfoil pharmaceuticals, and orcs attacking whenever the director needs another action set-piece. At some point, The Desolation of Smaug starts to feel like Peter Jackson as lounge act, serving up his greatest hits.
If we didn't know he was capable of so much better, the film might seem more passable. The action sequences are admittedly thrilling; the giant forest spiders here may be even more fearsome than Return of the King's Shelob. They're expertly choreographed, even if the barrel-ride river escape stretches the bounds of plausibility even for a fantasy film. And Jackson's penchant for dizzying camera movement and disorienting Dutch angles, along with the always stunning New Zealand-as-Middle Earth setting, still make for dazzling eye candy.
But the movie is at its best when Jackson dials down the bombast and goes for tension, or when he lets Martin Freeman's performance carry the day. Freeman simply gets the duality of hobbits, that nervous reticence hiding a deep well of bravery, better than anyone who's yet donned those hairy feet. Just as the first Hobbit film plateaued with Bilbo's game of riddles with Gollum, here the strongest scene is his interaction with the dragon Smaug, a cunning and beautifully rendered marriage of digital artistry and the seductively evil voice of Benedict Cumberbatch.
Unfortunately, moments like those are far too few, especially in a movie this long, and it often feels like the movie's title character is marginalized in his own story. Jackson wants to make The Hobbit exist on the same massive scale as his previous Tolkein adaptations, but the aesthetic of always more and always bigger tends to overshadow this diminutive hero.