In a stunning reversal, prosecutors on Tuesday dropped charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett for allegedly staging a hoax hate-crime attack against himself, a move that thrust the TV star’s case back into national headlines and drew swift condemnation from city leaders and police.
At a hastily scheduled hearing that lasted only a few minutes, prosecutors told a judge they would not pursue the 16 felony counts filed against the actor just over a month ago, and moved to seal all records in the case, effectively wiping the case from the public record.
It was a bombshell move that surprised Mayor Rahm Emanuel and top police brass, and seemed to have laid bare a rift between Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s Office and cops who were skeptical both of Smollett’s story and the reform agenda that swept Foxx into office three years ago — as well as her ties to the actor.
TIMELINE: The Jussie Smollett investigation
Smollett’s lawyers swiftly issued a statement depicting their client as a victim of an attack, while police insisted they had exposed how Smollett had paid two acquaintances to rough him up near his Streeterville apartment. In court, prosecutor Risa Lanier said the decision —apparently made with no input from Chicago Police officials —was made in consideration for Smollett’s community service and his willingness to turn over the $10,000 he had posted for bond to the city of Chicago.
Reading from a note card he clutched in shaking hands, Smollett addressed a wall of television cameras in the courthouse lobby — and continued to maintain his innocence.
“I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I was accused of. This has been an incredibly difficult time, honestly one of the worst of my entire life,” Smollett said, adding that he would continue to “fight for the betterment of the lives of marginalized people everywhere.”
With that, Smollett donned his sunglasses and walked out of the courthouse with his lawyers and a half-dozen supporters, pausing only to take a selfie with a fan.
A Whitewash of Justice
Less than an hour later, Emanuel and CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson blasted the state’s attorney’s office at a graduation ceremony for police recruits at Navy Pier.
“This is without a doubt a whitewash of justice, and sends a clear message that if you’re in a position of influence and power, you’ll get treated one way, [while] other people will be treated another way,” Emanuel said. “There is no accountability in the system. It is wrong — full stop.”
Both ripped Smollett for damaging the city’s reputation.
“Is there no decency in this man?” Emanuel asked.
The sudden conclusion of the case added a new but perhaps most controversial twist to a case that had intrigued and stirred outrage across the nation since Smollett reported that he had been assaulted by two men as he walked home from a sandwich shop in the early morning hours of Jan. 29. The African-American and openly gay actor said his attackers had hurled racist and homophobic taunts at him as they struck him, slipped a thin rope noose over his head and poured bleach on him. And they told him he was in “MAGA country.”
The alleged attack, as described by Smollett, drew national scorn from activists and politicians who decried it as a brutal hate crime. But a steady stream of leaks about the investigation, often citing law enforcement sources, made it seem even investigators had their doubts, and Smollett denounced his detractors in a tearful interview on “Good Morning America.”
After a three-week investigation police officials took hundreds of man hours, detectives were able to piece together ride-share records and surveillance footage from cameras in the area to track his assailants, though no video of the actual attack was located. Police identified bodybuilding brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who had worked as extras on “Empire” and had worked as physical trainers for the star. After nearly 48 hours of questioning, the pair told police Smollett had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack. Smollett became the target of the investigation.
Prosecutors then announced charges against Smollett for faking the attack — and Supt. Johnson appeared on GMA to “set the record straight.”
Adding to the intrigue was a decision by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to recuse herself from the case. Foxx had talked to a relative of Smollett’s during the first weeks of the investigation, when Smollett still was considered the victim of a hate crime. Text messages show that Foxx then contacted Johnson to urge the police chief to turn the case over to federal investigators. Foxx’s personal phone number had been passed to Smollett’s relative by Tina Tchen, a Chicago lawyer and prominent Democratic fundraiser who had worked as First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the union that represents most of the department’s rank-and-file officers, called for a federal investigation.
Foxx’s recusal left final decision making over the case in the hands of her top deputy, Joseph Magats, who said Tuesday that Foxx’s communications with Smollett’s relatives had no bearing on the decision to drop the case.
While Smollett’s lawyers portrayed the decision to dismiss the charges as vindication for the actor —a press release from his defense team described him as a “victim” three times — Magats said that the decision to prosecute Smollett was justified, and closing out the case without a guilty plea or jail time was standard for low-level, non-violent offenses prosecuted by the office.
Dropping the charges did not mean that Smollett was a victim of a crime, or that the case against him was somehow flawed, Magats said emphatically.
“Absolutely not. We stand behind the CPD investigation done in this case, we stand behind the approval of charges in this case,” Magats told the Sun-Times. “They did a fantastic job. The fact there was an alternative disposition in this case is not and should not be viewed as some kind of admission there was something wrong with the case, or something wrong with the investigation that the Chicago Police did.”
About 10 percent of the 60,000 felony cases handled by the office each year enter some form of “alternative prosecution,” a spokeswoman said.
Addressing reporters Tuesday, Johnson said only a “sliver” of the evidence against Smollett had been made public. Indeed, prosecutors disclosed the first tranche of documents to Smollett’s lawyers only two weeks ago, following the actor’s formal arraignment.
Magats said Smollett had been involved in community service following his arrest, and a spokeswoman for the office said Smollett’s willingness to turn over the $10,000 he had posted toward his $100,000 bail was crucial to prosecutors’ decision to dismiss the case.
https://t.co/LgBOr5vgkA: @JussieSmollett's charges dropped: "After reviewing all of the facts & circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett’s volunteer service in the community...we believe this is a just & appropriate resolution to the case": Cook County St. Atty’s Office pic.twitter.com/uSowmtzjij— Rev Jesse Jackson Sr (@RevJJackson) March 26, 2019
Prosecutors also had cited Smollett’s community service, and gave reporters a letter from the Rainbow PUSH Coalition that stated Smollett had spent several hours working with members of the organization on Saturday and Monday, describing the actor as talking to students headed on a college tour, selling merchandise in the “PUSH Freedom store” and talking to staff about marketing PUSH and “assessing” the organization’s broadcast studio and social media operation. Photos of Smollett at PUSH were posted to Jackson’s Twitter account Tuesday. Another letter, from the Los Angeles-based Black Aids Institute, noted the actor’s years of involvement with the organization.
But Magat’s predecessor as Foxx’s top deputy, Eric Sussman, said he was “shocked” by the outcome of Smollett’s case, calling it an unprecedented move by state’s attorney’s office.
“It is very strange to see the state’s attorney walk away from a case, with no new evidence or a witness recantation,” said Sussman, who resigned as first assistant state’s attorney a year ago for a job in the private sector. “Here’s the real question: What have they learned since they indicted the guy a month ago that made them do a 180 . . . for them to completely back down with no explanation?”
While his case in state court may be over, the actor’s future remains uncertain. Federal investigators had opened an investigation into a threatening letter mailed to Smollett a week before the actor reported being attacked.
After his arrest in February, Fox, the studio that produces the “Empire,” wrote Smollett’s character out of the final two episodes of the season. The studio issued a one-sentence statement Tuesday: “Jussie Smollett has always maintained his innocence and we are gratified on his behalf that all charges against him have been dismissed.”
Contributing: Michael Sneed, Frank Main