Relatives of a bisexual teen who died by suicide after he was outed online want criminal charges brought in the case, but they fear the local prosecutor won’t take action, as he has a history of anti-LGBTQ statements.
Channing Smith, 16, of Manchester, Tenn., died September 22. He had come out only to a few friends. He took his own life after intimate text messages he had sent to another boy were shared on social media. “I really hate how I can’t trust anyone because those I did were so fake,” the teen wrote in his final Instagram post.
Members of his family want Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott to investigate and prosecute those who shared the messages, but they have doubts about Northcott because of his record, Joshua Smith, Channing’s brother, told The Tennessean of Nashville.
Addressing a group of ministers in 2018, “Northcott said he wouldn’t prosecute domestic violence cases involving same-sex couples and did not recognize ‘homosexual marriage,’” The Tennessean reports. He said he would bring a charge of simple assault, which is a lesser charge, rather than one of domestic assault in such cases. He also said he would not prosecute county clerks who deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples but would instead encourage them to “stand on God’s truth.” The statements were captured on video and have led a group of Tennessee lawyers, Lambda Legal, and others to complain to the state’s Board of Professional Responsibility. The board could take a variety of actions against Northcott, such as taking away his license to practice law.
Northcott has denied that he isn’t pursuing the case involving Channing Smith. “Procedurally, no charging decisions have been made by my office nor has the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department asked for a decision since the investigation has not been completed,” he said in a written statement to The Tennessean. “When all relevant facts are available, my office will advise the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department on what charges, if any, we believe are appropriate to help guide it in that decision. Any report that my office has failed or refused to act is inaccurate and I wanted to clarify this for the sake of the Smith family as they do not need the added burden to the already incomprehensible pain that they are experiencing.”
Joshua Smith said he has had to push the sheriff’s department to keep the investigation going, and he is also disappointed with how his brother’s school has handled the matter. He said students at Coffee County Central High School have tried to bring attention to Channing’s death, demonstrating with signs using the hashtag #justiceforchanning. School officials confiscated the signs, he said in a Facebook post.
Charles Lawson, director of the Coffee County Schools, told The New York Times he was not at liberty to discuss the issue but that the school district had made counseling available to Channing Smith’s schoolmates.
While family members are not satisfied with the actions taken by the school or law enforcement, they do note that many people in their community have rallied around them, attending memorial services and making other gestures of sympathy. Country music star Billy Ray Cyrus sang “Amazing Grace” at one of the services. On the national level, actress Lili Reinhart and Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg have made supportive comments.
“I am dealing with the fact that the memorials came and went,” Joshua Smith told The Tennessean. “Just the attention it’s got is amazing. Billy Ray Cyrus coming was a miracle. But Manchester has been amazing in its support. We are moving on this week, but we are going to make a push for Channing.”
If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at (877) 565-8860. LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at (866) 488-7386. You can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 can be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.