In a surprise ruling, a Cook County judge Friday blocked the release of a 60-page report on a special prosecutor’s investigation into how State’s Attorney Kim Foxx handled the unorthodox decision to drop charges against Jussie Smollett last year.
Special Prosecutor Dan Webb last week announced the results of an investigation he began when he was appointed by Judge Michael Toomin a year ago, with findings that cleared Foxx, her staff and police investigators of criminal wrongdoing, but cited ethical lapses in the handling of Smollett’s case.
But Toomin Friday denied Webb’s request to make public a more detailed accounting of the evidence behind his conclusions, with the judge stating that much of the information about Smollett’s case was already publicly known following the 18 months of intense media scrutiny that began when the “Empire” actor first reported being attacked near his Streeterville home in 2019.
“There was access to material that lessens a need for this material to be released,” Toomin said, seated in a large courtroom at the Cook County Juvenile Justice Center.
Webb and Foxx’s attorney, Ruben Castillo, left Toomin’s courtroom immediately after the ruling without answering questions from the press.
Retired Judge Sheila O’Brien, who had petitioned the courts to investigate the Smollett case, was surprised by the decision and held out hope that Webb might soon release a version of his report without the grand jury material. “Would l love to see it? Sure, I want to read it all,” O’Brien told reporters in the courthouse lobby.
Smollett told police in January 2019 he had been jumped by two white men near his Streeterville home. Smollett wound up being accused of faking the attack, and a pair of Nigerian-born bodybuilders confessed Smollett had paid them to stage it. However, a 16-count indictment filed against Smollett in March 2019 was tossed just weeks later, prompting outrage. He did not complete probation or even admit guilt.
After Webb was appointed special prosecutor, he filed a new six-count indictment against Smollett in February. He was also tasked with looking into any wrongdoing in the handling of the case, and last week he said his investigation uncovered “substantial abuses of discretion and operational failures” in Foxx’s office. In a 12-page “information release,” Webb also said that Foxx and her deputies made false statements to reporters about the decision to drop charges against the actor in 2019.
Foxx, in a statement last week, said Webb’s announcement put “to rest any implications of outside influence or criminal activity on the part of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.”
Castillo added that the release contained “factual inaccuracies” and had asked Toomin to give the office time to review Webb’s report and prepare a response to his findings.
During his argument to the judge Friday, Webb clearly repeated one of the findings he shared in his announcement last week — that his investigation had exonerated Smollett of having improperly influenced Cook County prosecutors.
“No one improperly influenced the State’s Attorney’s office,” Webb said.
Still, Webb in his announcement wrote that lawyers who currently or previously worked in the criminal division of the state’s attorney’s office were “surprised” or “shocked” in some way by how the initial charges against Smollett were handled. He also wrote that the decision-makers in that initial case “have significantly and meaningfully divergent explanations for how the resolution was reached, including who negotiated the terms.”
Additionally, Webb pointed to untrue statements made by Foxx and her staff. For example, Webb said Foxx and others in her office made false statements in April 2019 about whether she realized she had improperly recused herself from the Smollett case.
Foxx appointed an “acting state’s attorney” to handle the case rather than ask the judge to appoint a special prosecutor. Once Foxx and her staff realized the error, Webb wrote that they “made the decision to ignore this major legal defect seemingly because they did not want to admit that they had made such a major mistake of judgment.”