Nex Benedict case officially closed after review

Nex Benedict. (Photo: Wikipedia)

CW: This story includes discussion of suicide and descriptions of anti-LGBTQ violence. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.

A final autopsy report and a decision from the Tulsa District Attorney’s office have officially closed the case of Nex Benedict, 16, an Indigenous nonbinary teen who lived on the Cherokee Nation reservation, and attended school at Owasso High School on the reservation in Owasso, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa. The teen died Feb. 8, not 24 hours after a beating by several girls at their high school.

The Tulsa County District Attorney Stephen Kunzweiler says no charges will be filed in the teen’s death and the final report from the medical examiner maintains that despite head and other injuries to their neck, torso and limbs, the cause of death was suicide and the other injuries were not lethal.

In a Feb. 21 statement, Owasso Police wrote on Facebook, “While the investigation continues into the altercation, preliminary information from the medical examiner’s office is that a complete autopsy was performed and indicated that the decedent did not die as a result of trauma” and “further comments on the cause of death are currently pending until toxicology results and other ancillary testing results are received.”

According to a news release from Kunzweiler, the district attorney’s office reviewed reports from law enforcement about the Feb. 7 fight in the bathroom at Owasso High School and Nex’s death on Feb. 8 to determine whether charges should be filed.

In his statement, Kunzweiler said in Nex’s autopsy report, the medical examiner noted injuries consistent with the fight but “did not uncover any evidence of an internal injury (blunt force/trauma related) which caused or resulted in death.”

As PGN reported in February, the medical examiner ruled Nex’s death a suicide in an autopsy summary. The D.A.’s statement also says there were “brief notes, written by Benedict, which appeared to be related to suicide.”

The detailed autopsy report from March 27 shows Benedict had diphenhydramine, fluoxetine, norfluoxetine and trace amounts of dextromethorphan and norchlorcyclizine in their system.

The document notes that Benedict used the preferred first name, Nex, but the legal document reflects the legal name of the teen.

“In my opinion, based on the circumstances surrounding death and the findings at autopsy, that [legal name redacted] Benedict died as a result of diphenhydramine and fluoxetine combined toxicity. The manner of death is suicide,” said Ross Miller, M.D.

The autopsy also details Nex’s past medical history, which cites they suffered from bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and self harm, as well as chronic tobacco abuse and chronic marijuana abuse.

The report also states that handwritten notes “suggestive of self-harm” were found in Benedict’s room and that these were provided by the family and given to law enforcement.

Concomitant with the full autopsy and the notes from the family, Kunzweiler said, “Based upon the investigation of the Owasso Police Department, I am in agreement with their assessment that the filing of juvenile charges is not warranted.”

He added, “From all of the evidence gathered, this fight was an instance of mutual combat. I do not have a reasonable belief that the State of Oklahoma could sustain its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt if charges were presented for prosecution.”

Police body camera video from Feb. 7 shows Nex describing the fight to an officer while in the hospital with their legal guardian and grandmother, Sue Benedict.

Nex says the day of the fight, they went to the bathroom “and I was talking with my friends, they were talking with their friends and we were laughing. And they had said something like, ‘Why do they laugh like that?’ And they were talking about us in front of us.”

In response to those comments, Nex poured water from a water bottle on the students and that’s when things escalated, Nex tells the officer.

Nex tells the officer from the hospital bed, “They came at me. They grabbed on my hair. I grabbed onto them. I threw one of them into a paper towel dispenser and then they got my legs out from under me and got me on the ground.” Nex added that the girls then started beating Nex and they blacked out.

The altercation was broken up by students and a faculty member, police have said. All students walked to the assistant principal’s office and the nurse’s office, police said, and there is video of Nex walking to the principal’s office with a security officer. 

The next day, paramedics responded to a 911 call at the Benedict house and performed CPR on the teen before rushing them to the hospital, where they later died. 

“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.”

In a statement, 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,” Benedict’s family said.

The Benedict family statement via their attorney on March 14 also commented on injuries described in the complete report, stating, “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 Medical Examiner found numerous areas of physical trauma over Nex’s body that evidence the severity of the assault.”

Local newspaper The Oklahoma reported that the National Association of Medical Examiners declined to comment on the autopsy report, stating the organization “has a longstanding practice of not consulting or commenting on individual cases.”

Dr. Paul Wax, the executive director of the American College of Toxicology, who reviewed the toxicology report at Tulsa’s KTUL news’s request said Nex would’ve had to have “taken a lot of pills” to get to the level of concentration found in their blood.

In his statement, Kunzweiler explained 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.”

The Office for Civil Rights division of the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into the Owasso School District on March 1, following a complaint filed by the Human Rights Campaign. The federal investigation is into whether Benedict’s school violated Title IX by failing to respond to “alleged harassment.”

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

“The district is committed to cooperating with federal officials and believes the complaint submitted by HRC is not supported by the facts and is without merit,” Spokesperson Brock Crawford said in an email.

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters told the New York Times, “I think it’s terrible that we’ve had some radical leftists who decided to run with a political agenda and try to weave a narrative that hasn’t been true.”

Walters said Nex’s death did not change his belief that people cannot be nonbinary or transgender. Walters does not permit students to use preferred names or pronouns that differ from those assigned at birth.

Right-wing media like National Review and Red State have dismissed both the Benedict family’s assessment of Nex’s experiences at school and Nex’s own statements. On April 1, National Review reporter Brittany Bernstein wrote, “We know for certain that the facts of [legal name redacted] ‘Nex’ Benedict’s life don’t conform to the progressive media narrative of bigoted teens and educators driving a trans kid to suicide. Instead, Benedict’s life — and its tragic conclusion — reflect a much deeper story about parental abuse and the psychological trauma and mental-health comorbidities that so often accompany gender confusion.”

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs also reported March 28, “Benedict was brutally abused by [their] biological father as a young child, leading to significant mental health problems.”

A detailed news analysis story in Red State entirely dismisses Nex’s gender identity, referencing them by their birth name and female pronouns throughout. The story asserts that Nex was fighting a mental health battle based on their brutal sexual abuse by their father, James Everette Hughes, perpetrated in 2017. The story calls media response to Nex’s death “exploitative” and states it was trauma-induced mental-health issues that caused Nex’s death and that it was in no way related to their gender identity or any bullying at school.

PGN found an affidavit issued on July 17, 2019, for the arrest of Hughes which showed that he was accused of sodomizing Nex when they were nine. Hughes accepted a plea deal to sexual assault in the second degree on November 27, 2019. He was sentenced to five years in prison in Arkansas and was released recently. Sue Benedict moved Nex out of Arkansas to Oklahoma and adopted them in 2019. A condition of Hughes’s parole was that he stay away from Nex.

President Biden said in a statement about Nex’s death, “Nonbinary and transgender people are some of the bravest Americans I know. But nobody should have to be brave just to be themselves. In memory of Nex, we must all recommit to our work to end discrimination and address the suicide crisis impacting too many nonbinary and transgender children.” First Lady Jill Biden said at an HRC dinner on March 23, “Laws and attitudes can lead to devastating consequences — harm that can’t be undone, that leaves parents torn by grief. Parents and grandparents like Sue Benedict — may Nex rest in peace — and the countless others who have lost LGBTQ children to suicide, bullying, and hate. Parents who have stood by their kids, loved them, learned from them, but who will never have another tomorrow with them.”

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