‘Half the way to rehabilitation’

There’s still time for Jussie Smollett to say what happened.

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Flanked by family members, supporters, attorneys and bodyguards, former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett walks out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse after he was found guilty on five counts of disorderly conduct but the jury acquitted him on one count, Thursday evening, Dec. 9, 2021.

Flanked by family members, supporters, attorneys and bodyguards, former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett walks out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse after he was found guilty in December.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

There is a poem by Robert Lowell, “Epilogue,” where something has gone wrong with his writing.

“Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme,” it begins, “why are they no help to me now”?

The problem, he explains, is, “sometimes everything I write/with the threadbare art of my eye/seems a snapshot/lurid, rapid, garish, grouped.”

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Midway, the path out hits him, an epiphany, a knife cutting through the confusing clutter.

“Yet why not say what happened?”

Clarity. Just tell the truth. Why not? It really does set you free. The Jussie Smollett calliope wheezed to life Tuesday when his attorney confirmed the former “Empire” actor will be sentenced March 10 — moving the actor, found guilty by a jury and the court of common sense of staging a racist attack against himself, toward eventually receiving some kind of punishment. A sharp tap on the wrist, no doubt.

But how sharp? I had this fantasy of the judge brandishing two sealed envelopes, saying: “Explain right now exactly what occurred, and I’ll give you sentence A. Keep up the charade, and you get B. Your choice.”

Which made me wonder: Why do convicted criminals sometimes get a break if they admit their crime, even after refusing to do so at trial? Why reward tardy contrition? What’s the logic behind it? The crime is the same, whether you admit it or not.

“So they won’t recommit the same kind of crime. Sentencing is not supposed to be for punishing, but mostly for rehabilitation,” said Howard J. Wise, noted Chicago criminal defense attorney. “If people admit they’re guilty, that’s half the way to rehabilitation. They give them credit for that, and a lighter sentence.”

“The judge must take in several factors,” said Kevin P. Bolger, former Chicago police officer, former Cook County prosecutor, and defense attorney for over 40 years. “One factor is acceptance of responsibility. Contriteness. That goes a long way in the judge’s mind.”

There is a risk, however.

“Part of the dilemma lawyers face taking a case to trial is, the defendant can’t say, ‘I’m sorry,’ because it wipes out your chances for an appeal,” said Richard Kling, a defense attorney for 50 years.

Such admissions rarely occur.

Flanked by family members, supporters, attorneys and bodyguards, former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse after the jury reached a verdict on Dec. 9.

Flanked by family members, supporters, attorneys and bodyguards, former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse to hear the jury’s verdict in December.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“In all my years of practice,” said Kling, “I had one guy convicted of bank robbery in federal court. After insisting he was innocent, it came to sentencing and he said, ‘I am embarrassed. I am ashamed. I deserve what I get. Hopefully, this is a lesson to change my ways.’ He showed genuine contrition.”

And did it get him a lighter sentence?

“It definitely helped,” Kling said.

So can Smollett now say, “Whoops, it was all a lie”?

“He could still say, ‘I am terribly sorry for any inconvenience I placed on city of Chicago that might have happened as a result of this trial,’” said Bolger. “Do something like that, rather than remain mute. Quite frankly, if he were to come up and say, ‘I’m really sorry,’ they probably wouldn’t indict him for perjury, but give him an opportunity to come clean.”

If I may address myself directly to Jussie Smollett: Don’t blow this opportunity.

Come clean. You must, sooner or later, if you are to have any hope of a life beyond this shameful episode. Trust me on that. Lowell’s line, “Yet why not say what happened?” is the epigraph to a book, “Drunkard,” I wrote about a time in my life when I had messed up worse than you. A time when I had to decide: Try to build my life back. Or stay in denial, and fade to nothing.

I acknowledged the truth, which is the only reason I’m here writing this today. You should do the same. This episode can be all anyone ever remembers about you. Or a footnote. The judge isn’t actually going to decide your fate. You will. You already have. But clinging to the lie was a bad choice. Another bad choice from a screw-up who did that kind of thing. Changing course requires you to be a different person than the one who made those bad decisions.

That’s why admitting the truth is so important. Be that different person. Set a new course. Hold your head up, look the judge in the eye, tell the truth, then start trying to live a better, truthful life. If I can do it, anyone can.

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