The family of a 16-year-old student is calling for justice after he took his own life when a friend outed him online.
The body of Channing Smith was discovered on Sunday at his Manchester, Tennessee home. Family members say the Coffee County High School student was outed by a classmate following a disagreement between the two. The student reportedly retaliated against him by posting screenshots of explicit texts between him and another boy.
At the time of his death, Smith had not told family members that he identified as LGBTQ+.
Although many news outlets described Smith as bisexual, brother Joshua Smith referred to him as “gay or bisexual” in an interview with the U.K. newspaper Daily Mail. He added that Channing’s family “would have accepted him no matter what” and called him “the sweetest kid ever.”
His mother, Crystal Smith, said her son’s death is a reminder that “posting one little picture can destroy somebody's life.”
“I can't describe the pain,” she told the local TV news station WKRN. “You can't understand it. How somebody could be that mean to somebody just for the fun of it? It doesn't make any sense.”
While friends and classmates honored the late student’s life with a candlelight vigil on Thursday, in which they released balloons in Smith’s memory, his family hopes that justice will be served. Although Joshua said the student who posted the images shouldn’t be “brought up on murder charges,” he believes some responsibility should be taken for the aftermath.
“[T]here is harassment and manslaughter,” he told the Daily Mail, “there are different levels that could happen.”
Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott did not state whether or he not would be not pressing charges against the young person who outed Smith, but Smith’s family said they were told he does not intend to move forward with prosecution. In a public statement, Northcott claimed he is “prohibited from commenting on an open investigation or prosecution.”
“However, 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.
However, the district attorney expressed his “heartfelt condolences to his family” and said he is “deeply saddened by the tragic loss.”
Northcott has previously faced criticism for anti-LGBTQ+ views, which critics are concerned could influence his views of the case. In a 2018 video, he said that he refuses to enforce Tennessee’s domestic violence laws in cases of intimate partner violence between same-sex spouses because he doesn’t “recognize it as marriage.”
“[T]he reason that there's enhanced punishment on domestic violence is to recognize and protect the sanctity of marriage,” Northcott said, adding: “There's no marriage to protect.”