CHICAGO — The stunning decision by prosecutors to drop all charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett for staging an attack made to look like a hate crime is another smudge for a city whose reputation has been tarnished by violent crime and questionable police practices.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office announcement Tuesday that effectively clears Smollett, who earlier this month was indicted on 16 counts of disorderly conduct for filing a false report, seemed to come out of the blue.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said that neither he nor his detectives were given any forewarning about the prosecutor’s move. Nor were any witnesses who helped police and prosecutors with their investigation — a courtesy typically offered by prosecutors to citizens assisting a case, said police department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
Media who have been covering the ongoing saga of Smollett learned from the actor’s legal team that he was headed to court for an emergency hearing shortly before the proceedings were set to begin.
“They chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal to circumvent the judicial system,” said an angry Johnson, who learned that the State’s Attorney’s office was dropping the charges against Smollett while he was attending a police officer graduation and promotion ceremony.
The State’s Attorney’s office said dropping the charges did not amount to the office exonerating Smollett. As part of the deal, Smollett agreed to forfeit $10,000 bond that he posted after being charged to the city of Chicago.
“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,” Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman for the State’s Attorney’s Office, said in a statement.
Prosecutors were effectively making the case that in a city with no shortage of serious crime, pursuing Smollett wasn’t worth the effort.
Indeed, Chicago has had one of the highest per capita homicide rates among major U.S. cities in recent years. Police have recovered more than 1,800 illegally possessed weapons off the city’s streets already this year. The state’s crime lab is so overwhelmed that it has a backlog of more than 5,000 cases — including hundreds of Chicago homicide cases — that are awaiting DNA testing, Illinois State Police officials testified Monday.
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The city’s 13,000-officer police department has also been beset by no shortage of scandal.
A federal judge in January approved an agreement, known as a consent decree, between the State of Illinois and City of Chicago that will require the Chicago police to undertake dozens of reforms. The department has spent more than $700 million since 2010 on settlements and legal fees related to lawsuits alleging police brutality.
In October, a Chicago Police Officer was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald, an incident that led to street protests and national outrage.
In brief comments to reporters, Smollett maintained he “had been truthful and consistent” with police throughout the investigation. One of his attorneys, Patricia Brown Holmes, criticized police for trying the case in the press.
Frank Chapman, co-chairman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, called the decision by prosecutors to drop the charges further proof of corrupt policing in the city.
“This is just another example of the Chicago Police Department doing what they do,” Chapman said.
Meanwhile, police brass and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were seething with outrage after learning of prosecutors’ decision. Emanuel claimed the decision created the appearance of a two-tier justice system.
“This sends a clear message if you’re in a position of influence and power you’ll get treated one way and other people will get treated another way,” Emanuel said. “This is wrong.”
The allegations by Smollett, who is black and gay, garnered national attention.
He reported to police early on Jan. 29 that he had been attacked by two men who yelled homophobic and racists slurs at him, while they beat him near his apartment in the city’s tony Steeterville neighborhood. Smollett also told police the attackers yelled, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, during the assault.
Police dedicated dozens of officers and detectives to the case, and for weeks called Smollett a victim of a vicious attack. They eventually arrested two brothers, Abel and Ola Osundairo, who worked on the set of “Empire” with Smollett.
Initially, police considered the brothers to be suspects. But the siblings, on the cusp of being charged, told investigators that they had been paid $3,500 by Smollett to stage the attack. The brothers said Smollett, who was unhappy with his salary, wanted to use the incident to boost his profile, according to Johnson and prosecutors.
Police said that the brothers’ account was bolstered by bank records, surveillance video, rideshare receipts, and other evidence.
Rev. Marshall Hatch, a Chicago pastor who ministers in one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, didn’t disagree with Emanuel’s contention that Smollett case reeks of inequity.
But Hatch, who leads New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood, said in an interview he was having a hard time swallowing Emanuel’s and Johnson’s outrage over the matter.
“The way that people in my neighborhood have been looking at this whole Smollett case from the beginning is by noticing the glaring differences in the way police extend resources on certain crimes in certain neighborhoods, while not on others,” said Hatch, who has been a frequent critic of Emanuel. “We have a very low murder closure rate in this city. So, when people see this kind of attention and expense that police and the State’s Attorney put into this case, it just reinforces the sense that the police and criminal justice works for everybody else, but it doesn’t work for us.”
“I am having a hard time caring about Jussie Smollett or whether or not he was let off easy,” Hatch added.
In the eight weeks since Smollett reported being attacked, there have been no shortage of twists and turns in the case.
Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat who represents a Chicago-area district, called on FBI director Christopher Wray to open “an immediate and sweeping civil rights investigation into the racist and homophobic attack” on the actor and Democratic presidential hopefuls, Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, expressed concern for Smollett.
And as the investigation plugged along — and before Smollett was charged — there were signs of tension between the actor and investigators.
On Feb. 12, police raised concerns that heavily-redacted phone records provided by Smollett to authorities did not meet the burden of a criminal investigation.
Earlier this month, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx released a series of texts and emails detailing messages she exchanged with an unnamed Smollett family member and a high-profile Chicago attorney, Tina Tchen, who asked Foxx to press for Johnson to send the case to the FBI. (Tchen was the chief of staff to former first lady Michelle Obama when her husband was in the White House.)
The messages were exchanged from Feb. 1 to Feb. 13, when police were still identifying Smollett as the victim of a crime.
Foxx decided to recuse herself from the investigation prior to Smollett being charged, because of her interactions with Smollett’s family. She tapped her first deputy, Joseph Magats, to oversee the case.
The announcement to drop charges came just one week before the city’s mayoral election, pitting Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot. The two are vying to become the city’s first black woman to hold the office.
Foxx served as Preckwinkle chief of staff before she was elected in 2016 to serve as the county’s top prosecutor. Preckwinkle was measured in her response to the decision.
“I’m not a lawyer and I’m not the state’s attorney,” Preckwinkle said. “I think it’s really important that the state’s attorney be allowed to provide a fuller explanation as time goes on.”
Lightfoot urged prosecutors to provide further explanation about their decision.
“The state’s attorney, First Deputy Magats, has to come forward and provide a much more fulsome explanation, so people have confidence that nothing untoward happened, that they were really calling balls and strikes” Lightfoot said. “If there’s an issue with evidence, put it out there and talk about it.”
Kevin Graham, president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, said Tuesday he would ask the Justice Department to investigate the State’s Attorney’s Office’s handling of the case.
“I don’t think justice was done here today,” Graham said.
Contributing: Jayme Deerwester