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Judge might unseal records in Jussie Smollett case

Jussie Smollett | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A Cook County judge could rule as soon as next month on whether to unseal files in “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett’s hate-crime hoax case.

Lawyers for media organizations, including The Chicago Sun-Times, filed an emergency motion seeking to make records in Smollett’s case public because of the intense national attention on the case and prosecutors’ abrupt, controversial decision last week to drop all charges in the case.

Judge Steven Watkins said Tuesday he would issue a written ruling around May 23.

At a hearing March 26, one that hadn’t been placed on the public court schedule, prosecutors dropped 16 counts of disorderly conduct against Smollett in exchange, apparently, for Smollett forfeiting $10,000 he had posted toward his bond to the city of Chicago.

During the same hearing, with no opposition from prosecutors, Smollett’s lawyers requested Watkins seal all records in the case.

“The file is sealed,” Watkins said Tuesday, noting that under the law the file is not simply tossed out but can’t be viewed by anyone without a court order. “It’s not destroyed.”

A state law that took effect in 2018 allows the “immediate seal” of records in cases where charges have been dropped or the defendant has been acquitted, a measure that was intended to help defendants clear their records to prevent problems with finding jobs or other issues. But lawyers for the media organizations pointed out that the notoriety of Smollett’s case made it unlikely that a criminal background check would be necessary to find out about it.

“No employer or any other sentient being would be unaware of Mr. Smollett’s encounter with the criminal justice system,” lawyers wrote in a brief filed Tuesday.

There are few documents in the actual court file since Smollett’s case was sealed and charges dropped only weeks after his arrest.

Chicago Police officials released some investigation reports the day after Smollett’s case was dismissed, then stopped and said the seal covered the documents. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has said that only “arrest” records in Smollett’s case were meant to be covered by the seal.

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