The Cook County state’s attorney’s office dismissed all charges against Jussie Smollett on March 26, creating a firestorm of controversy.
As is often the case, the ensuing debate has generated a great deal of heat without adding much to an understanding of what occurred.
The charges were dismissed at an unscheduled court call, apparently without notice to the police superintendent. The assistant state’s attorneys simply said they were dismissing the case, an action within the prerogative of the prosecutor and not subject to outside review.
It is not unheard of for prosecutors to dismiss cases. That often means some critical evidence, such as a confession or witness testimony, is no longer available or a legal issue has arisen that dramatically lessens the chances of securing a guilty verdict. These types of problems are a reality and must be faced.
In this case, however, there have been mixed messages from the state’s attorney’s office as to the basis for the dismissal. Initially, a spokesman for the office stated that the dismissal was not the result of problems with the case and that Smollett had been properly charged. Later, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx indicated that there were potential problems with the evidence that made the outcome of a trial “uncertain.”
These seemingly contradictory statements have done little to allay concerns about the actions taken in this case.
Foxx also said that the dismissal was in the normal course of business for non-violent felonies, run-of-the-mill cases that clog the system and take away from the focus on violent crime. But the Smollett case was hardly a garden-variety prosecution.
Smollett’s initial claim that he had been attacked because he was black and gay garnered national attention. The police devoted countless hours to tracking down videos and following leads. They soon uncovered evidence that Smollett had manufactured the whole thing and arrested him.
He was then indicted on several felony counts of filing false reports with the police.
These developments also received national attention, with Police Supt. Eddie Johnson speaking out forcefully against Smollett’s betrayal of the city and his undermining of our laws against hate crimes.
To classify this case as just one of thousands ignores the reality of the public discussion it has generated regarding the credibility of the police and the reputation of the city. The dismissal without an explanation undercuts law enforcement efforts and the standing of the city. It left many people outside Chicago questioning the integrity of our local justice system.
Those suspicions were no doubt buttressed by the sealing of the records in this case without objection by prosecutors.
Ron Safer, one of Smollett’s attorneys and a respected former federal prosecutor, wrote recently that the media was placing too much emphasis on matters unrelated to the evidence in the case. The law and the evidence are critical pieces in any prosecution, and there might well be a debate about the evidence in the Smollett case.
But there is another aspect to this case that Safer failed to mention. The state’s attorney is an elected official and, as such, obligated to inform the public on criminal justice issues that have become important to the community. So far, the statements from prosecutors have shed little light on the reasons for dismissing the case against Smollett.
Jussie Smollett walked out of court on March 26th continuing to proclaim his innocence. And there was nothing in the court record to undercut that claim.
Even if the state’s attorney’s office saw Smollett as a non-violent offender deserving of a light sentence, it is hard to understand how prosecutors let him go without any admission of responsibility for what had happened.
That failure adds to the puzzlement over the sudden dismissal of the charges against Smollett.
Richard A. Devine was Cook County state’s attorney from 1996 to 2008. He is of counsel in the Chicago office of the law firm of Cozen O’Connor.
Send letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org.