No charges will be filed in the death of a Tennessee teen who took his own life shortly after sexually explicit messages he’d exchanged with another boy when he was 15 were leaked on social media, leaving his distraught family is fighting for stronger laws.
Channing Smith, 16, of Manchester, was horrified when he learned that teens he knew had posted private messages he’d sent, outing him as possibly bisexual, his brother, Joshua Smith says.
“I really hate how I can’t trust anyone because those I did were so fake,” Channing wrote shortly after. “Bye.”
Hours later, he was dead.
“My brother committed suicide because of the actions of 2 kids that he trusted that turned personal screenshot messages over to social media in a deliberate attempt to assassinate his character,” his older brother, Joshua Smith, 38, wrote in a Facebook post entitled “Being gay shouldn’t be a death sentence,” just days after his brother died.
Students at Channing’s school held rallies and created the Justice for Channing Facebook page, asking that justice be served.
Channing’s death is a tragedy, and we must work to build a future deserving of his memory. My deepest condolences are with his family and friends. If you're struggling with belonging or considering harming yourself or others, please contact the @TrevorProject at 866-488-7386. https://t.co/3uVwg1ZJHj— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) October 1, 2019
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Moved by the teen’s story, Cyrus arranged for Channing’s father and brother to meet with First Lady Melania Trump at the White House earlier this week to talk about cyberbullying.
Highlighting online safety is one of my #BeBest priorities. Yesterday, @billyraycyrus introduced me to the Smith family to hear about the tragic loss of their loved one from cyberbullying. Teaching positive online behaviors can ensure a safer future for our children. pic.twitter.com/3p4HfdRtTX— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) November 19, 2019
My heart breaks for Channing, his family, his friends and the community. This is the saddest story. You have to read this. Enough is enough. #JusticeForChanning https://t.co/TT99ULd8I1 https://t.co/tf3s6nGZ49 pic.twitter.com/ooPgAj1LgP— Billy Ray Cyrus (@billyraycyrus) September 28, 2019
On Tuesday, a day before what would have been Channing’s 17th birthday, Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott released a statement saying he would not be filing criminal charges in the case.
“Upon the completion of the full investigation into the circumstances of Channing Smith’s death by the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department and this office and after a review of the criminal statutes of this state, I have determined that there is not probable cause to believe that any crimes have been committed in this tragic situation,” the statement said.
“Thus no criminal charges or juvenile petitions will be sought by this office. The family remains in my prayers and I hope that all of Channing’s friends and family can find peace in this difficult time.”
Joshua and others already feared that no charges would be filed. Northcott made headlines in 2018 with anti-LGBTQ views he shared at a Bible conference and could lose his license because of it, local station WZTV and the Associated Press report.
He was reportedly recorded saying he didn’t believe in gay marriage and promised that same-sex partners wouldn’t receive protections from domestic violence laws, WZTV reports.
The state Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Responsibility began investigating Northcott in June, The Tennessean reports. The outlet reports Northcott also called Islam an “evil belief system.”
In a statement to PEOPLE in September, Northcott said his office had not “failed or refused” to investigate Channing’s death.
Joshua and his family have vowed to work to try to change the laws.
“Until those laws can be changed to make situations like this a prosecutable offense, people will continue to assassinate others’ characters online without fear of charges,” says Channing’s mother, Crystal Smith. “That is unacceptable. No family should have to go through this.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.