It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Jussie Smollett.
The 39-year-old actor showed promise as a rising star of a hugely popular TV series. Because of his celebrity, he had a platform. He had potential to be a force for good, speaking out on important issues that people of color and those in the LGBTQ community face every day.
Then Smollett himself became the issue, through his own actions.
On Thursday, Smollett was convicted of five counts of disorderly conduct — he was acquitted on one count — for staging a hate crime against himself and then lying to investigators about it.
It’s a relief that this almost three-year saga is now over. It’s consumed far too much time and energy, among police, the media, lawyers, judges and everyday folks who argued back and forth, from almost the beginning, over whether Smollett was lying.
But in another sense, we’re disappointed — and also angry.
Smollett started off as a child actor in the ’90s, and was building steam in Hollywood after landing roles in the Lee Daniels’ Fox TV drama “Empire” — as the gay son of a record company mogul — and in Ridley Scott’s 2017 film “Alien: Covenant.” He had also released his debut album, “Sum of My Music,” in 2018.
The promise was there. But it all began to unravel in the worst way in January 2019, when Smollett reported to Chicago police that two men walked up to him on a bitterly cold night, yelled racist and homophobic slurs, poured a suspicious liquid on him and put a thin rope around his neck. All while yelling, “This is MAGA country.”
The serious accusations led plenty of people to rally behind Smollett as the victim, an innocent Black and openly gay man who needed justice. Members of Congress, governors and Hollywood elites condemned the alleged attack. Police spent thousands of hours investigating the incident as a hate crime.
But the support died off after police unraveled a different story. Smollett, they said, wasn’t the victim but a perpetrator who, along with two brothers he recruited, staged an attack for selfish, publicity-seeking reasons.
Smollett was charged in March 2019. But Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx unexpectedly dropped the charges, blindsiding police and setting off a firestorm of controversy. Her mishandling of the case — starting with the fact that she spoke with an a representative from Smollett’s camp while her office was handling the case — dogged her re-election campaign and remains, to this day, a mark against her record.
Eventually, former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb was brought on as special prosecutor to unravel the story. Webb charged Smollett a second time, leading to the trial and Thursday’s verdict.
We hope that verdict finally dims the spotlight on the whole sorry story. Smollett embarrassed himself, lost his career and possibly his freedom if he is sentenced to any prison time. It’s disappointing, when he had the chance to do some real good.
But most important is that we remember the real victims of serious hate crimes, who can’t count on their celebrity or high-profile advocates to help them get justice.
Then-Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said Smollett’s “publicity stunt” made it easier for some to dismiss hate crimes, calling it “despicable.” Webb said much the same in his closing arguments, saying what Smollett did, in denigrating real hates crimes, was “just plain wrong.”
Here’s one example: The clearance rate — the percentage of cases where a person is arrested, charged and turned over for prosecution — is lower for transgender individuals who experience fatal violence than for fatal violence cases in general.
Brendan Lantz, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University, found the clearance rate for fatal anti-trans violence to be about 44%, while the national average falls between 60% and 70%.
About 50 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been fatally shot in 2021 as of mid-November, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Typically, a majority of these individuals are Black or Latino transgender women.
Let’s not forget, as well, that hate crimes in general are seemingly under-reported. The FBI’s annual hate crimes report is always woefully incomplete, likely in part because policing agencies are not required to report the data.
Chicago and America can now move on from Jussie Smollett and his lie.
Now let’s focus on bringing justice to those who deserve it.
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