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Judge to rule next week whether to open ‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett’s case to public

The actor’s lawyers want the records to remain sealed. The media wants them unsealed.

Actor Jussie Smollett listens as his attorney, Patricia Brown Holmes, speaks to reporters at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse after prosecutors dropped all charges against him, Tuesday morning, March 26, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A Cook County judge on Thursday said he would rule next week whether to make files in “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett’s now dismissed criminal case public.

When Smollett’s disorderly conduct charges were abruptly dropped in March, Judge Steven Watkins put a seal order on the records.

The actor’s lawyers want the case files to remain sealed.

State law enacted in 2017 allows the sealing of records in cases where the charges are dismissed or the defendant is acquitted, but media organizations, including the Chicago Sun-Times, have petitioned Watkins to make Smollett’s files public because of the controversy surrounding the decision to drop the charges.

Watkins said he’d rule on the matter on May 23.

At a brief hearing Thursday, attorney Natalie Spears, who represents the media organizations, argued how Smollett’s case was handled has raised questions — including those voiced loudly by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The 2017 law was enacted to prevent people who had been cleared of crimes from having old charges harm their job prospects, but sealing court files will hardly dim the spotlight on Smollett’s arrest for allegedly faking a hate crime attack on himself, Spears said.

“We can’t erase history. We cannot erase the record of Mr. Smollett’s arrest,” Spears said. “This case impacts more than Mr. Smollett. This is about democracy. This is about how our government functions. This is about transparency.”

Smollett’s lawyer, Brian Watson, argued that Smollett is entitled to the same rights and privacy of any defendant, and that the actor did not choose to land himself in the midst of a media firestorm.

“Think of somebody who, in a high-profile case is found not guilty. That defendant who is now not guilty says they want their record sealed, ‘I want my rights back,’” Watson said. “You may be innocent but you don’t get your rights back, because (the media) covered it from here to Helsinki.”

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx initially said that she did not intend to allow Smollett’s records to be completely sealed, and her office has filed a motion to have the case unsealed to allow the county Office of the Independent Inspector General to conduct a review of the case. Assistant State’s Attorney Cathy McNeil Stein on Thursday said the state’s attorney didn’t have a position on whether or not to unseal the records.

There are likely to be few records in the court files that shed much light on Smollett’s case or why the charges were dismissed just two weeks after he was formally indicted. But law enforcement agencies, including the state police and Chicago police have denied public record requests for arrest and investigation records in the case, citing the seal order.