Jussie Smollett Charges Dropped for No Apparent Reason

One of the most bizarre cases in recent memory gets . . . much more bizarre.

AP (“Prosecutors abandon criminal case against Jussie Smollett“):

In an astonishing reversal, prosecutors on Tuesday abruptly dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett, abandoning the case barely five weeks after the “Empire” actor was accused of lying to police about being the target of a racist, anti-gay attack in downtown Chicago.

The mayor and police chief blasted the decision and stood by the investigation that concluded Smollett staged a hoax. A visibly angry Mayor Rahm Emanuel called it “a whitewash of justice” and lashed out at Smollett. He asked, “Is there no decency in this man?”

Smollett’s attorneys said his record had “been wiped clean” of the 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was assaulted by two men. The actor insisted that he had “been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one.”

“I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I was being accused of,” he told reporters after a court hearing. He thanked the state of Illinois “for attempting to do what’s right.”

It was not immediately clear what prompted the decision to dismiss the case. In a statement, the Cook County prosecutors’ office offered no detailed explanation. The city will keep the $10,000 in bail money that Smollett paid to get out of jail after his arrest.

“After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett’s volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case,” the statement from spokeswoman Tandra Simonton said.

Typically, a minimum condition of dropping cases is some acceptance of responsibility. Outside court, neither Smollett nor his legal team appeared to concede anything about his original report.

Defense attorney Patricia Brown Holmes said Smollett was “attacked by two people he was unable to identify” and “was a victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator.”

Authorities alleged that Smollett, who is black and gay, knew the men and arranged for them to pretend to attack him.

Among the unanswered questions was whether prosecutors still believe Smollett concocted the attack or whether new evidence emerged that altered their view of events.

Emanuel, who is in his final weeks in office after two terms, said the city saw its reputation “dragged through the mud” by Smollett’s plan to promote his career. The hoax, the mayor said, could endanger other gay people who report hate crimes.

“Now this casts a shadow of whether they’re telling the truth, and he did this all in the name of self-promotion,” he said.

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stood by the department’s investigation and said Chicago is “is still owed an apology.”

“I’ve heard that they wanted their day in court with TV cameras so that America could know the truth. They chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal to circumvent the judicial system,” Johnson said at a graduation ceremony for new police cadets.

Chicago’s top prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, recused herself from the investigation, citing conversations she had with a Smollett family member.

That may be the worst-written article in the history of the AP wire. It’s a confusing jumble that doesn’t answer any questions.

One would think the mayor and police chief would know why charges in a high-profile case were dropped. But, apparently, they do not. Emanuel seems to think it’s somehow Smollet’s fault. But it’s the prosecutor, not the accused, who decides whether charges are dropped.

And why is it that, if charges have been dropped without Smollet pleading guilty to any lesser offense, paying a fine, or . . . something . . . the city gets to keep the bail money?

The Chicago Tribune report (“Mayor Emanuel blasts prosecutors’ decision to drop charges against ‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett: ‘This is not on the level’“) at least answers the last question:

Calling it “a whitewash of justice,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel tore into the decision, emphasizing repeatedly that a grand jury had chosen to bring 16 counts of disorderly conduct against Smollett.

“From top to bottom, this is not on the level,” Emanuel told reporters at an afternoon news conference.

Why the state’s attorney’s office made the sudden about-face wasn’t immediately clear. The office issued only a one-sentence statement.

But in an interview Tuesday afternoon, First Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Magats, who took charge of the case after State’s Attorney Kim Foxx stepped aside because of a conflict of interest, said the office reached a deal with the defense in recent weeks to drop the charges if Smollett performed community service and forfeited his $100,000 bond.

“The bottom line is, we stand behind the investigation, we stand behind the decision to charge him,” Magats told the Tribune. “The fact that (Smollett) feels that we have exonerated him, we have not. I can’t make it any clearer than that.”

Yet a short time before, Smollett’s attorney, Patricia Brown Holmes, said the defense reached no deal with prosecutors. Smollett agreed to forfeit his bond “so he could go on with his life and get this over with,” she said.

Smollett had to post 10 percent of the bond — $10,000. Ordinarily, that money would be returned to him or his attorneys.

For unclear reasons, Judge Steven Watkins ordered the public court file sealed.

Dave Schuler, my go-to guy on matters of celebrity gossip the Windy City, wonders, “What the heck just happened?” His best guess:

Before we conclude that Smollett’s case is, like Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously dead and alive, I think there’s an interpretation that explains the decision to drop charges. Under Illinois statute the state’s ability to seek damages and penalties is quite limited, in all likelihood far less expensive than pursuing the case would be. Is it possible that the decision not to pursue the charges is actually a cost-saving measure?

His commenters have other guesses, including that Smollett has agreed to seek mental health treatment.

I’m baffled by the whole thing but am incredibly leery of sealed rulings in criminal proceedings involving adult defendants. While I seldom agree with Rahm Emanuel on much of anything, I agree with him that this whole thing stinks to high heaven.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kylopod says:

    It is bizarre. If this were a TV drama, the writers would be derided by critics for introducing cheap, contrived plot twists.

    And maybe this should give people second thoughts about jumping to conclusions that fit their preconceived beliefs before all the facts are in.

  2. Hal_10000 says:

    Smollet’s attorney has also been swept up in the Michael Avenatti thing, apparently.

    Cripes, it’s only Tuesday and this week is already crazy.

  3. Hal_10000 says:

    There’s another possibility: that the case against Smollett is weak as hell. There was enough to get a grand jury to indict but they realized that if they went to a jury with this, it might well end in a humiliating acquittal.

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be credible.

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  5. Kit says:

    @Kylopod:

    And maybe this should give people second thoughts about jumping to conclusions that fit their preconceived beliefs before all the facts are in.

    I upvoted you, but still I think that it is precisely inexplicable decisions like this that all but force people to jump to preconceived beliefs.

  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    A visibly angry Mayor Rahm Emanuel called it “a whitewash of justice” and lashed out at Smollett. He asked, “Is there no decency in this man?”

    If Jussie Smollett wanted to commit felonies in Chicago with impunity, he should have joined the Chicago Police Department like everyone else!

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  7. Gustopher says:

    I shall withhold judgement until I read William Barr’s summary letter for this decision.

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  8. mattbernius says:

    Without getting into the unique criminal justice system of Cook County, IL/Chicago (remember that there are give or take about 3000 separate criminal justice systems in the US), my understanding is that he was able to take advantage of a first time offender prosecutorial diversion.

    Essentially the prosecution is put on hold and he had to complete a certain number of agreed upon stipulations. So long as he does that he doesn’t end up with a record (hence why there is no judgement).

    If he fails to comply, then things reset and the prosecution could move forward.

    Generally speaking, diversions are a good thing. My guess is in this case they felt it would cost more to take him to trial because he wasn’t going to plea. That plus a good lawyer will do wonders.

  9. Modulo Myself says:

    Yes, it’s quite puzzling how the criminal justice system in America might not be able to stand up to a defendant with money and a spotlight. Fuck, I’m also happy for him. You have to wonder if some cop lied through his teeth on the grand jury and the prosecution forgot to check up on the story, because they were too busy trying to figure out how to use the trial as a way to get a better career.

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  10. mattbernius says:

    @mattbernius:

    my understanding is that he was able to take advantage of a first time offender prosecutorial diversion.

    Little more information on diversions — the availability of diversion programs change from state to state and typically county/large municipality to count/large municipality.

    To Dave S.’s point:

    Under Illinois statute the state’s ability to seek damages and penalties is quite limited, in all likelihood far less expensive than pursuing the case would be. Is it possible that the decision not to pursue the charges is actually a cost-saving measure?

    I suspect that this is 100% the case. BTW, cost almost always goes into any decision to pursue prosecution.

    Without getting into the details of Smollets case, one of the more screwed up aspects of our CJ systems is rarely do cases go to trial. The entire system is designed to incentivize pleas (in part as as a cost savings measure). If Smollet had taken this to trial (which he probably would have), the state’s costs could easily have approached the $100K that they just recovered via the diversion.

    The net result of our systems are that the state’s evidence is rarely tested.

  11. Tyrell says:

    It seems that reduced charges would have been the better solution here, even some sort of plea deal. Dropping everything does not show much respect for their legal system there. And the police chief and mayor should have been in on this instead of it being dropped on everyone like that.
    And having all this sealed? What’s all with that? Oh, it’s Chicago-
    Al Capones vault.

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  12. Bill Jempty says:

    @Kylopod:

    It is bizarre. If this were a TV drama, the writers would be derided by critics for introducing cheap, contrived plot twists.

    The late author Tom Clancy said it best= “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

  13. Guarneri says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Nice straw man.

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  14. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Scott Greenfield explained that on Twitter:

    First offender, unlikely to be a recidivist, strong community ties, suffered collateral consequences, no one physically harmed, not motivated by financial gain. Just noodling here.

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  15. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Guarneri:

    200 torture victims without a single indictment isn’t a strawman.

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  16. DrDaveT says:

    @mattbernius:

    Without getting into the details of Smollets case, one of the more screwed up aspects of our CJ systems is rarely do cases go to trial.

    Seriously. I was recently called up for jury duty at the city level, and never even had to report to the courthouse during my week of being on call. Nobody had to report from our pool — no case that week actually went to a jury trial. That’s not because the docket was empty.

  17. Matt says:

    @Guarneri: It’s reality. It’s well known even among the higher class people in Chicago that the cops can do whatever they want and that you should do everything you can to stay away/out of their way.

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  18. Matt says:

    @DrDaveT: In the last 3 years I’ve been called into jury duty 5 different times. One time was for the city and none of the cases went to trial so we just sat in a cramped room all day. The other four times were for county trials and only one of them actually went to trial.

    The most awesome part of all is I didn’t get paid for the city day or 3 of the county days….

    The one time I was paid for jury duty on the county level involved two days and $10…

  19. Mister Bluster says:

    …rarely do cases go to trial. …no case that week actually went to a jury trial.
    Criminal. Civil.
    How many cases should go to trial? All of them?
    Only the ones that are a slam dunk for the prosecution or the plaintiff?
    As a juror I’ve only sat for one criminal trial like that. After the prosecution presented its case and the Judge called on the Public Defender the PD’s only words were “the defense rests your Honor.”
    In the jury room we actually spent about 45 minutes deliberating despite the abbreviated proceedings. We voted for conviction on the first ballot.
    Before a civil trial that I was chosen to hear commenced the twelve of us sat in the jury box for an hour in the otherwise empty courtroom when the Judge finally appeared and announced that the parties had settled and we could all go home!
    Another time I was called the Judge asked us all to tell little bit about ourselves and if we knew any of the parties to the case. I watched him make notes as the other prospective jurors spoke. When It was my turn I told him that 25 years earlier I was a driver for the Yellow Cab Company that I knew his father owned and that I was sure that I had seen him when he would ocassionally stop by the cab stand. He sat up straight on the bench from his note taking and looked right at me.
    Later after the voir dire was complete and we were in recess he sought me out in the hallway and shook my hand and told me about the great memories he had from hanging out at the cab stand with the hacks.
    Needless to say I didn’t have to hear any of his trials.

  20. mattbernius says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    How many cases should go to trial? All of them?
    Only the ones that are a slam dunk for the prosecution or the plaintiff?

    Good questions, with no great answers.

    (Welcome to the CJ reform space)

    Without a doubt, not all cases should go to trial. And many should not even go through the court process — instead being handled by things like diversion programs (either at time of arrest or during the pre-trial process).

    However, there are also far too many tools available to prosecutors to incentivize pleas — including in cases where they have weak evidence. And that is a problem if you are interested in a fair justice system — especially for those who have the least amount of power/capital in our society.

    It also isn’t great for the issue of prison crowding/mass incarceration.

  21. Kylopod says:

    @Bill Jempty:

    The late author Tom Clancy said it best= “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

    I first heard a version of that quote attributed to Mark Twain. According to Quote Investigator, he is indeed the earliest known source for some form of that quote, though in his case it went, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” And while that basic sentiment has been repeated over the years by various people and a version of it was attributed to Tom Clancy in a Reader’s Digest series of quotes, there’s little evidence he ever actually said it.

  22. Pete S says:

    So nothing has changed in Chicago since the Black Sox signed confessions disappeared from a locked courtroom 100 years ago (I guess 99 to be precise). This is a pretty high publicity case so I would assume that someone in a position of power in Cook County wants to make sure people know this.

  23. Pylon says:

    @Hal_10000:

    If not for the fact they kept the bail money, yours is the most obvious answer. The case rested on the testimony of two alleged conspirators. If they are changing their story or plain unreliable witnesses, there’s no case. But how the bail money is forfeited is beyond me. I guess it could be part of a deal to drop charges but that seems like an unsatisfactory answer. The money is insignificant to the state. usually a bargain involves some sort of lesser charge/admission/etc.

  24. mattbernius says:

    @Pylon:

    The money is insignificant to the state.

    Unless the rules in Illinois are different, that money goes to Cook County, not the state.

    The state actually had little to no involvement here. Everything plays out at either the municipal or the county level.

  25. Tyrell says:

    @Pete S: Sounds like someone just got a free home at the beach: $$$!

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  26. john430 says:

    It’s all about Chicago and Democrats so move along. Nothing to see here.

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  27. Mister Bluster says:

    Nothing to see here.

    No one sees anything worthwhile in your posts Johnny. You don’t have to tell us.

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  28. john430 says:

    @Mister Bluster: Well, I always try to comfort the mentally ill.

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  29. An Interested Party says:

    Well, I always try to comfort the mentally ill.

    Oh, then you should seek out any non-millionaire who supports Trump and the GOP…

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  30. john430 says:

    @An Interested Party: LOL!! I live in Texas which hasn’t had a Democrat in statewide office since the 1990s. Texas is seeing large increases in Californians and New Yorkers fleeing those two Soviet bloc states. Mental health problems are big in those two places.

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  31. Barbara A Carson says:

    They have plenty on him to make the charges stick, he knew the right people to get him off. That is total Smollett, his name will go down in infamy like Benedict Arnold. I thought a few were going to defend him here, but as always you turn your heads on the obvious and eat up this BS Now his lawyer want us to believe the dark black men were maybe in whiteface. PLEASE stop being so ridiculous.