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Coffee DA declines to file charges in Manchester teen’s suicide

Channing Smith

REGIONAL NEWS | Manchester — Coffee County DA Craig Northcott announced on Tuesday that his office will decline to file criminal charges against the two teens accused of cyber bullying a Manchester teen into committing suicide in September.

“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,” DA Craig Northcott said in a written statement. “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.” 

Suicide blamed on cyber-bullying from classmates

According to his family, prior to his suicide Channing had come out to two fellow students as either being gay or bisexual: a teenage girl and the teenage boy with whom he’d exchanged explicit text messages. Those students allegedly shared screenshots of the conversation on both Snapchat and Instagram.

“They did it to just completely humiliate and embarrass my brother,” Channing’s brother Joshua Smith told Nashville News station Fox 17 in September. “Being in a small, rural town in the middle of Tennessee, you can imagine being the laughing stock and having to go to school Monday morning. He couldn’t face the humiliation that was waiting on him when he got to school on Monday, so he shot and killed himself.”

Intent hard to prove in the case

Tennessee does boast laws to specifically address bullying in public schools. According to the federal Stop Bullying website, Tennessee anti-bullying laws and regulations include not only harassment and intimidation on campus but also any off site activity that creates “a hostile educational environment or otherwise creating a substantial disruption to the education environment or learning process.” It can also refer to acts meant to cause “emotional distress to a student.” Tennessee laws do include cyber bullying or bullying undertaken through the use of electronic devices, though it does not give special protection to certain groups.

Criminal liability become more murky. One lawyer The Lynchburg Times spoke to said the legal question of whether or not a reasonable person would know that outing someone publicly would result in their suicide was a “big burden to overcome.” Legal causation for suicide is difficult to prove, though the victim’s family could still choose to bring a civil lawsuit.

Despite the outcome, Channing’s death sparked a renewed focus on Suicide Awareness in southern, middle Tennessee. In October, Jack Daniel’s Distillery, as part of DMA-events Artober mural project, sponsored a mural dedicated to Smith at Foothills Crafts in Manchester. To read more about that project, click here. •

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