The controversial district attorney charged with overseeing Channing Smith’s suicide case has been hit with numerous ethics complaints in recent months, giving rise to concerns about his partiality.
Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott has made national headlines in recent weeks following the death of Smith, a 16-year-old student in Manchester, Tennessee who took his own life after being outed as bisexual on social media. Northcott will be tasked with determining whether the classmates that posted Smith’s private text messages — in which he engaged in an intimate conversation with another male student — will face prosecution for their roles in his death.
Complicating matters are remarks Northcott made in 2018 regarding LGBTQ+ equality. Speaking at a church seminar in Texas, he was asked whether he would prosecute a county clerk who refused to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples in accordance with their religious beliefs (ala Kim Davis). He said he would not do so because he doesn’t believe same-sex marriages are valid.
Northcott went onto state that he doesn’t prosecute acts of domestic violence between couples of the same gender on similar grounds.
“[T]he reason that there's enhanced punishment on domestic violence is to recognize and protect the sanctity of marriage,” the district attorney said, as Out has previously reported. “[...] There's no marriage to protect.”
The LGBTQ+ advocacy group Lambda Legal was one of hundreds of nonprofit organizations, attorneys, and other concerned parties which called for an ethics investigation after Northcott’s remarks surfaced earlier this year. Calling his conduct “unethical” and “unprofessional,” more than 300 signatories called upon the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility to probe his actions at the “highest level of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse of discretion.”
“A district attorney who believes he can make prosecutorial choices without limitation and for discriminatory purposes, believes he is above the law and poses a substantial threat to the public,” the letter claimed.
Ethan Rice, a senior attorney for the Fair Courts Project at Lambda Legal, says its decision to call for Northcott to be investigated was unprecedented.
“We have filed ethics complaints against judges before, but I think this is the first time we have filed an ethics complaint against an attorney,” Rice tells Out. “It's a very rare thing for us to do, but part of it was because he was so clear about his anti-LGBTQ+ bias and how it impacts his professional work.”
According to Rice, Lambda Legal particularly feared that Northcott’s anti-LGBTQ+ views would “impact the local community.”
“It might prevent folks from wanting to report on not just domestic assault cases, but on any hate crimes that might happen,” he says. “He was sending a message that crimes against LGBTQ+ people don't rise to the same level of egregiousness as crimes committed against heterosexual people in Coffee County.”
However, Northcott wasn’t only accused of bias against the LGBTQ+ community. The Council on American-Islamic Relations joined the numerous entities calling for an investigation into Northcott after he referred to Islam as "an evil belief system,” “violent,” and “against God’s truth” in a series of Facebook posts and compared Muslims to members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood.
“I will not be cowered into pretending that their belief system is legitimate or one of peace,” Northcott wrote.
Given the district attorney’s history, some worry he will not treat Smith’s death with the same gravity as he might the suicide of a heterosexual student, despite the fact that queer and trans young people experience higher rates of bullying, suicidal ideation, and depression than their peers. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Smith’s brother, Joshua, “was told by a Coffee County investigator that Northcott directed investigators not to pursue an investigation.”
Northcott has claimed in a statement that “no charging decisions have been made by [his] office” and that he is barred from commenting on an ongoing investigation. However, he has also refused to apologize for his remarks, claiming in a response to the ethics complaint that his views are “shared by the majority of Tennesseans.”
“I have a strongly held religious belief that homosexuality is a sin,” he wrote. “As such, I have a strongly held belief that I must not do anything that will either condone, promote, or suggest that I agree with such behavior.”
Even though Northcott’s purports to speak for Tennessee residents on LGBTQ+ rights, polling shows the state is increasingly supportive of equality for queer and trans people. A 2017 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute finds that a slim plurality of Tennesseans are in favor of marriage equality: 46 percent to 45 percent. And as of 2013, just 37 percent of overall Americans regard homosexuality as a sin.
LGBTQ+ groups remain hopeful that Northcott will put aside his personal views and seek justice for Smith. The late teenager’s family has called for the students behind his death to be prosecuted for charges of harassment or manslaughter, rather than murder.
When asked whether the district attorney should be removed from the case, Lambda Legal says it’s too soon to tell.
“We don't have enough information to make that determination right now, but we are certainly going to be keeping an eye on this, seeing what happens, and seeing how the case progresses,” Rice says. “It's incredibly important that we investigate and find out what really was the cause of his death and what led to it. LGBTQ+ youth have incredibly high rates of suicide, and whatever we can be doing to ensure that we are lowering those statistics and we are preventing death is hugely important.”