No criminal charges to be filed against teens who fought Nex Benedict the day before their suicide

The Associated Press - March 23, 2024 8:22 am

FILE - In this image provided Malia Pila, Nex Benedict poses outside the family's home in Owasso, Okla., in December 2023. The death of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary student the day after a fight inside an Oklahoma high school restroom, has been ruled a suicide, the state medical examiner's office said Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (Sue Benedict via AP, File)

By SEAN MURPHY Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — No criminal charges will be filed against the Oklahoma teens who reportedly ganged up on Nex Benedict in a high school bathroom fight. Nex’s death following the altercation was ruled a suicide, the county district attorney said on Thursday.

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said in a statement that after reviewing the investigation by the Owasso Police Department, he agreed with an assessment from detectives that the fight between the teen and three girls was an “instance of mutual combat” and that charges were not warranted.

“When I review a report and make a decision to file a charge I must be convinced — as is every prosecutor — that a crime was committed and that I have reasonable belief that a judge or jury would be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed,” Kunzweiler said. “From all the evidence gathered, this fight was an instance of mutual combat.”

Kunzweiler also said Owasso police uncovered a “suicide note” written by Benedict, although he declined to say what the note said. The state medical examiner determined last week that Benedict’s death in February was a suicide caused by a drug overdose.

“An important part of the Owasso Police Department’s investigation was the discovery of some brief notes, written by Benedict, which appeared to be related to the suicide,” Kunzweiler said. “The precise contents of the suicide note are a personal matter which the family will have to address within the privacy of their own lives.”

An attorney for Benedict’s family, Jacob Biby, said he didn’t expect the family to comment Thursday on the district attorney’s decision. In a statement last week, however, the family called on schools, administrators, and lawmakers to come together and push for reforms that seek to end bullying.

“Reforms creating school environments that are built upon the pillars of respect, inclusion and grace, and aim to eliminate bullying and hate, are the types of change that all involved should be able to rally behind,” Bendict’s family said.

The death of Benedict, who was nonbinary, which means they didn’t identify as strictly male or female, and used they/them pronouns, has served as a flashpoint for LGBTQ+ rights groups over bullying in schools and has drawn attention from Oklahoma’s governor, Republican Kevin Stitt, and Democratic President Joe Biden.

In video footage from the hospital the day of the altercation, Benedict explains to an officer that the girls had been picking on them and their friends because of the way they dressed. Benedict claims that in the bathroom the students said “something like: why do they laugh like that,” referring to Benedict and their friends.

“And so I went up there and I poured water on them, and then all three of them came at me,” Benedict tells the officer from a hospital bed.

Police said because of the water pouring, it qualifies as mutual combat. Nex reported that their head was slammed into the floor multiple times before they blacked out.

Benedict’s family reviewed the complete autopsy report and said it documented numerous areas of physical trauma that evidence the severity of the assault, in a statement released through their attorney. They did not dispute the coroner’s report finding of a suicide.

“Rather than allow incomplete accounts to take hold and spread any further, the Benedicts feel compelled to provide a summary of those findings which have not yet been released by the Medical Examiner’s office, particularly those that contradict allegations of the assault on Nex being insignificant,” the statement said.

The findings shared by the family from the complete autopsy report also showed contusions and lacerations to the teen’s face and head, injuries to the back of the left hand, and abrasions to the chest that the coroner said are consistent with efforts to administer CPR.

Paramedics responded to the family’s house the day after the fight and performed CPR before rushing Benedict to the hospital, where the teen later died.

Benedict’s family has said there had been harassment because of the teen’s nonbinary identity, and federal officials have opened an investigation into the school district, according to a letter sent earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Education.

Owasso Public Schools confirmed in a statement that the district received notice of the investigation and called the allegations unsupported and without merit.

In his statement on Thursday, Kunzweiler said that while securing a criminal conviction requires a standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” he noted the burden of proof in a civil case is significantly less.

“Whether or not individuals may choose to seek legal counsel for remedies in the civil realm of the court system is a decision best left to them,” he said. “The scope of those inquiries are not as limited as the question of criminal/delinquent conduct which I was asked to address in this case.”

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This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. There are also LGBTQ focused services, like Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386; both have online resources as well.

 

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