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Why the charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped — and why many are stunned

Jussie Smollett

Jussie Smollett listens as his attorney, Patricia Brown Holmes, speaks to reporters Tuesday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

When the Cook County state’s attorney’s office dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett, the legal and law enforcement communities were stunned. Here are some answers to the questions swirling around the end of the Smollett case.

Q: Smollett was charged a little more than a month ago. Is this unusually fast to drop the charges?

A: Typically, these high-profile cases can drag on for months, even years. So yes, it was quick. Smollett’s defense had received its first set of records only last week from the investigation, so it is not clear how much they would have even known about the evidence against Smollett.

Q:  Did Smollett get a deal with prosecutors or not?

A:  Prosecutors and the defense don’t agree on what to call it. Smollett’s defense attorney said there was no deal, that prosecutors just dropped the charges, and said the indictment should have never been brought in the first place. Smollett is a victim of an attack, his lawyers say. But as part of the court hearing Tuesday, Smollett agreed to forfeit the $10,000 he posted to stay out of jail. Typically, Smollett would have gotten the money back, but it’s going to the city’s Law Department. A spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said if Smollett hadn’t agreed to that, prosecutors wouldn’t have dropped the charges. It’s hard to know more details because the judge in the case has sealed all the documents.

Q: So prosecutors dropped the charges because their case was falling apart?

A: Not according to the top prosecutor who handled the case, First Assistant Joe Magats. Magats told the Sun-Times in an interview: “We stand behind the CPD investigation done in this case, we stand behind the approval of charges in this case. They did a fantastic job. The fact there was an alternative disposition in this case is not and should not be viewed as some kind of admission there was something wrong with the case, or something wrong with the investigation that the Chicago Police did.” Magats stressed Smollett was not a victim in the case.

Q: What gives prosecutors the right to do this?

A: Prosecutors said dismissing the charges and sealing court records are common and allowed under state laws in deals typically called deferred prosecutions that are offered to low-level, non-violent offenders. Defendants typically would enter a pre-trial diversion program, possibly perform community service and have to stay out of trouble for months or years to have their cases dropped.

Q: Is that what happened here?

A: No. Prosecutors dropped the charges immediately; they aren’t waiting to see if Smollett stays out of trouble. They referred to Smollett’s impressive community service in the past, and the actor had done some community service work for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition as recently as Saturday and Monday. But he doesn’t have to do any additional community service.

Q: How unusual is this?

A: Dave Gaeger, a veteran defense attorney who happened to be in the courtroom during Smollett’s brief hearing, said he was surprised. Smollett wasn’t required to fulfill any conditions to have the charges dropped, and forfeiting his bond money to the city was not described as restitution or a fine. “This was a unique outcome for a case of this magnitude, or at least for the amount of attention it’s gotten, and it’s not very transparent,” Gaeger said. He added that he had never seen a similar end to a case and said as a defense attorney he’d never been offered similar deals by prosecutors.

Q: Can anyone recall a similar deal offered by prosecutors?

A: The former top deputy in the state’s attorney’s office, Eric Sussman, said in an interview he was “shocked” by the outcome, calling it an unprecedented move by the state’s attorney’s office. “It is very strange to see the state’s attorney walk away from a case, with no new evidence or a witness recantation,” said Sussman, who resigned as first assistant state’s attorney a year ago for a job in the private sector. “Here’s the real question: what have they learned since they indicted the guy a month ago that made them do a 180 . . . for them to completely back down with no explanation?”