Jussie Smollett, star of Fox’s hit series “Empire,” claimed he was the victim of a racist, homophobic attack in Chicago on January 29th. After much public outcry and hundreds of hours of investigation, Chicago police determined that the attack had been a publicity stunt arranged by Smollett.
He was charged with 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct for filing a false police report, all while continuing to deny his involvement. On March 26th, those charges were dropped, and Smollett continued to proclaim his innocence, despite evidence to the contrary.
So what exactly happened?
On January 29th, Smollett claimed he was attacked around 2 a.m. as he returned home from a Subway store. He said that the two assailants wearing masks hit him in the face, put a noose around his neck and poured a chemical – possibly bleach – on him, all while yelling slurs and stating that this was “MAGA Country.”
Apparently, Smollett was not the person who reported the attack; rather, a 60-year-old friend called the police. Smollett still had the noose around his neck when police arrived at his apartment. He also declined to turn over his cellphone for examination by the police.
The Public Outcry
The story was headline news for days following the alleged attack, and Smollett received a huge outpouring of support from celebrities, fans, politicians and ordinary citizens. Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi chimed in, voicing her support for Smollett and profound condemnation of the attack.
Somewhere in this time period one of Michelle Obama’s former aides, Tina Tchen, helped Smollett’s family connect with a top-notch prosecutor in Illinois.
Ten days passed with no apparent further developments or leads in the case. But the Chicago police, with the aid of surveillance video, had determined who the alleged assailants were: Abel & Ola Osundairo, two brothers who were acquainted with Smollett. Police were waiting for them at the airport on February 13th as they arrived back from a trip to their home country of Nigeria.
Two days later, police announced that they were questioning two persons of interest. But later that evening, the two brothers were released without any charges being filed.
And two days after that, when confronted with video evidence of them purchasing the rope that was placed around Smollett’s neck, the brothers told police that Smollett had paid them to stage the hoax.
The plot thickens…
At this point in the saga, the Cook County State Attorney, Kim Foxx, recused herself from the case. Apparently Foxx had acted as an intermediary between Smollett’s family and the Chicago PD early on in the case.
Her first assistant, Joe Magats, was recruited to oversee the proceedings.
On February 20th, Smollett was charged with felony disorderly conduct for filing a false police report. He turned himself in to authorities the next day, facing one to three years in jail. He was released that evening on $100,000 bond.
On March 8th, the charges were updated to include 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct.
Once word dropped that the attack on Smollett appeared to be nothing more than a publicity stunt, the negative feedback was fast and furious. While a few stood by Smollett, the vast majority were quick to remove or disavow their previous statements of support.
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed his outrage at the dropped charges and threatened to sue Smollett for the cost of the investigation – estimated to be somewhere around $130,000.
And while a U.S. president is not supposed to place his hand of the scale of justice, President Trump called for an investigation into Smollett by the Department of Justice and the FBI – via Twitter, of course.
The Charges Dropped
In what many consider a stunning course reversal, it was announced March 26th that the Cook County State Attorney’s office had declined to prosecute Smollett. In exchange for the charges being dropped, Smollett must perform a minimal amount of community service and forfeit his $10,000 bail.
Many questioned why what appeared to be a solid case was so quickly dismissed, especially without getting an admission of guilt from Smollett. And why was the court file immediately sealed? Rumors of a backroom deal quickly began to circulate.
On March 29th, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune. In rhetoric reminiscent of another recent controversial report, she stated that the dropped charges didn’t mean Smollett was exonerated.
She also offered some reasons for dropping the charges. She claimed that the chances of obtaining a conviction were too “uncertain” – a justification that seems dubious, given that cellphone records and the testimony of the supposed attackers could have made a strong case indeed.
The more likely justification – and the one she offered further down in the editorial – was that the case would have involved much grandstanding, and given that the charges were low-level felonies, she believed the resources of the justice system could be better applied toward more serious crimes. She didn’t think any good would come out of putting Smollett behind bars.
Foxx focused on the role of the justice system in keeping dangerous criminals locked up. While that’s certainly one important purpose, another is deterrence: to prevent others from falsifying police reports and draining public resources, and to send a strong message that such behavior constitutes a crime that will be punished. As it is, the only message Foxx’s office has sent is that people like Jussie Smollett can get away with felony offenses with a mere slap on the hand.
After all, would the average Joe Blow have received the same dismissal for similar-level charges? Or was this a case of preferential treatment and celebrity justice?
It seems there may be much more to play out – and many more questions to be answered – before this saga is over.