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In late January, news broke that Empire actor Jussie Smollett had been attacked in Chicago in an alleged racist, homophobic hate crime. Over the two months that followed, the story changed entirely. Smollett was arrested in late February for allegedly staging the attack, and in early March, he was indicted on 16 felony counts related to these allegations. Smollett pled not guilty in mid-March, and just last week, all criminal charges against him were dropped.
Once these charges were dropped, Smollett and his lawyers restated their oft-repeated claim that all charges against him were baseless and that the city of Chicago should apologize for its false accusations. However, those familiar with the Cook County justice system have expressed suspicions about a potential backroom deal.
Immediately following the decision to drop all charges against Smollett, the entire court file on the case was sealed. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, whose office oversaw the Smollett case, quickly came under fire. Foxx had spoken with both a relative of Smollett’s and the politically-connected lawyer Tina Tchen early in the investigation before authorities began to suspect Smollett of any crimes. The sealing of the case and Foxx’s involvement with these third parties have raised red flags and drawn stern condemnation from The Illinois Prosecutors Bar Association and the National District Attorneys Association.
The Illinois Prosecutors Bar Association was especially harsh in its criticisms. It described as untrue Cook County prosecutors’ claims that the dropping of Smollett’s charges was a step in a formal deferred prosecution program. In any such program, the association said, the defendant must admit wrongdoing — and Smollett pleaded not guilty from the start.
Prosecutors are far from the only officials expressing concerns about the handling of the charges against Smollett. Chicago’s mayor, police, and police union have all said that Smollett’s deal is extremely out of the ordinary and indefensible. Tracy Siska, who has two decades of experience studying Chicago’s justice system, told NBC that there are major differences between standard diversion programs and Smollett’s formal deferred prosecution program. A standard program requires several court appearances, public statements, and months of work before charges are dropped. In Smollett’s case, all charges were dropped the same month they were pressed.
Suspicions about Smollett’s case exist outside Chicago too. On March 28th, President Donald J. Trump claimed that he would demand the FBI and Department of Justice investigate the case. Trump first stated this intent in a tweet, which he followed with further remarks to White House reporters. It is unclear what, if anything, these federal departments can achieve now that Chicago prosecutors have entirely dropped the case against Smollett.
Trump critics, who are abundant and far from quiet, have accused Trump of using the case to further stoke racial divisions, an allegation not new to the president. Even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is pushing for Smollett to pay more than six figures to Chicago police for their investigation, said that Trump should stay away from this case, citing the president’s poor history of race relations.