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Mayor Emanuel blasts prosecutors' decision to drop charges against 'Empire' actor Jussie Smollett: 'This is not on the level'

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/26/2019 By Megan Crepeau and Madeline Buckley, Chicago Tribune
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CHICAGO — In a stunning reversal, Cook County prosecutors on Tuesday dropped all charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett for allegedly staging an attack and claiming he was the victim of a hate crime.

The surprise end to a case that had transfixed the nation brought swift condemnation from police brass and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who called it a “whitewash of justice.”

“From top to bottom, this is not on the level,” Emanuel told reporters at an afternoon news conference, emphasizing repeatedly that a grand jury had chosen to bring 16 counts of disorderly conduct against Smollett.

The deal came to light as Smollett appeared unexpectedly in court Tuesday. Afterward, the state’s attorney’s office issued a one-sentence statement that attempted to explain the about-face but only added to the confusion.

In a telephone 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, a career prosecutor who’s been with the office for nearly three decades, told the Chicago Tribune. “The fact that (Smollett) feels that we have exonerated him, we have not. I can’t make it any clearer than that.”

The state’s attorney’s office later released a letter from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition that said Smollett had performed community service for just two days — Saturday and Monday.

In her comments to reporters, Smollett’s attorney, Patricia Brown Holmes, denied any deal had been made with prosecutors, contrary to what Magats said. The state’s attorney’s office simply dropped the charges, according to Brown. Smollett agreed to forfeit his bond “so he could go on with his life and get this over with,” she said.

Jussie Smollett et al. standing next to a person: Actor Jussie Smollett exits courtroom 101 into the hallway at the Leighton Criminal Court Building following an emergency hearing over his disorderly conduct charges on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS Actor Jussie Smollett exits courtroom 101 into the hallway at the Leighton Criminal Court Building following an emergency hearing over his disorderly conduct charges on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. Smollett had posted 10 percent of the bond — $10,000. Ordinarily, that money would be returned to him or his attorneys but instead it will be handed over to the city of Chicago.

To add to the confusion, Judge Steven Watkins ordered the public court file sealed for unexplained reasons.

In a telephone interview, Eric Sussman, Magats’ predecessor as Foxx’s top aide, said the abrupt, secretive nature of the deal “raises questions as to whether there is embarrassing information the state’s attorney’s office doesn’t want the public to know.”

“I’ve never, ever seen anything like this, Sussman, now in private practice, said of the decision to drop charges so soon after an indictment.

Magats denied, however, that the dropping of the charges either signaled weak evidence or a desire for secrecy.

“It’s a mistake and it’s wrong to read into the decision that there was something wrong or that we learned something about the case that we didn’t already know,” Magats told the Tribune.

The baffling turnabout left Emanuel and police Superintendent Eddie Johnson fuming. Both were careful not to directly criticize the state’s attorney’s office but instead focused their contempt on Smollett.

The mayor suggested that Smollett was given special treatment because of his celebrity and scoffed at the $10,000 — Smollett’s bond money — given to the city as part of the deal, noting it wouldn’t come close to the city’s expenditures for investigating the alleged attack.

“Where is the accountability in the system?” Emanuel asked. “You cannot have, because of a person’s position, one set of rules apply to them and another set of rules apply to everybody else.”

Johnson stood by the work of detectives and said he believed the city was owed an apology.

“Do I think justice was served? No,” said Johnson, who memorably blasted Smollett at a news conference last month announcing the charges, saying at the time that the hoax dragged “Chicago’s reputation through the mud.”

“I’ve heard that they wanted their day in court with TV cameras so America could know the truth,” the superintendent told reporters Tuesday. “And now they chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal to circumvent the judicial system.”

Before departing the courthouse, Smollett thanked his attorneys, family, friends and Chicago for supporting him through what he called “an incredibly difficult time for me.” He also thanked “the state of Illinois” for “attempting to do what’s right.”

“I have been truthful and consistent from day one,” Smollett, his hands shaking as he read from notes, told reporters in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Court Building.

Foxx recused herself from the case last month after revealing she had contact with Smollett’s representatives early on in the investigation.

Foxx declined to provide details at the time. Communications later released to the Tribune, however, showed Foxx had asked Superintendent Johnson to turn over the investigation to the FBI after she was approached by a politically connected lawyer about the case.

Holmes said she was not privy to the evidence that led prosecutors to bring charges, but she accused Johnson of “trying the case in the press.”

When asked if authorities should investigate who actually attacked Smollett, Holmes noted that two brothers — both of whom knew Smollett — had already admitted their involvement. They alleged that Smollett paid them to stage the attack.

“The two men who attacked him have indicated that they attacked him, so we already know who attacked him, those brothers,” she said.

When asked whether she was calling for the brothers to be charged, Holmes said that is a decision for prosecutors to make.

“We don’t want to try them in the press any more than (Smollett) wanted to be tried in the press,” she said.

In the Tribune interview, Magats said prosecutors informed Chicago police officials Tuesday morning of the decision to drop the charges against Smollett, but he noted that the office has been in contact with police from the beginning about potential options for resolving the case.

“The investigation done by CPD and the detectives was outstanding,” Magats said. “The fact that the case is disposed of alternatively is not and should not be read as some type of statement that the case is flawed.”

There had been no clue that prosecutors planned to drop the charges before the announcement in court. In fact, there likely would have been no reporters in the courtroom if it hadn’t been for a publicist for Smollett’s attorney alerting the news media Tuesday morning that Smollett was already in court for an unscheduled emergency hearing.

Moments after the judge allowed the dismissal, attorneys for Smollett issued a statement.

“Today, all criminal charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and his record has been wiped clean of the filing of this tragic complaint against him,” the statement said. “Jussie was attacked by two people he was unable to identify on January 29th. He was a victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator as a result of false and inappropriate remarks made to the public causing an inappropriate rush to judgment.

“Jussie and many others were hurt by these unfair and unwarranted actions,” the statement continued. “This entire situation is a reminder that there should never be an attempt to prove a case in the court of public opinion. That is wrong. It is a reminder that a victim, in this case Jussie, deserves dignity and respect. Dismissal of charges against the victim in this case was the only just result.

“Jussie is relieved to have this situation behind him and is very much looking forward to getting back to focusing on his family, friends and career.”

The 36-year-old actor, who is African-American and openly gay, has said he was walking from a Subway sandwich shop to his apartment in downtown Chicago about 2 a.m. Jan. 29 when two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him and wrapped a noose around his neck.

Smollett said they also yelled “This is MAGA country,” in a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again.”

Police initially treated the incident as a hate crime, but their focus turned to Smollett after two brothers who were alleged to have been his attackers told police that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack, with a promise of an additional $500 later.

Police pieced together much of their evidence by reviewing footage from about 55 police and private surveillance cameras showing the brothers’ movements before and after the attack.

The shift in the investigation came amid intense press coverage and often bitter public debate and stinging skepticism on social media.

Smollett addressed those doubts in a national TV interview and in a strongly worded statement after the brothers were released from custody after questioning by police.

A week before the alleged attack, Smollett told police he received a threatening letter at work. Prosecutors said Smollett staged the attack because he was unhappy with the studio’s response to the threatening letter. Chicago police took it a step further, accusing Smollett of faking the letter as well.

Federal authorities are conducting a separate investigation into that letter.

Foxx reached out to Johnson after Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, emailed Foxx saying the actor’s family had unspecified “concerns about the investigation.” Tchen, a close friend of Mayor Emanuel’s wife, said she was acting on behalf of the “Empire” actor and his family. A relative later exchanged texts with Foxx.

The exchanges began Feb. 1, three days after Smollett said the attack occurred. It would still be 2 1/2 weeks before he was charged with making the story up, but some media outlets were already starting to question the actor’s account, citing unnamed police sources.

“Spoke to the Superintendent Johnson,” Foxx emailed Tchen back on Feb. 1. “I convinced him to Reach out to FBI to ask that they take over the investigation.”

That same day, Foxx texted with Smollett’s relative, whose name was blacked out in copies released by her office.

“Spoke to the superintendent earlier, he made the ask,” Foxx wrote. “Trying to figure out logistics. I’ll keep you posted.”

“Omg this would be a huge victory,” the relative replied.

“I make no guarantees, but I’m trying,” Foxx wrote back.

Kiera Ellis, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office, said at the time that Smollett’s relative was specifically concerned about leaks to the media that purportedly came from the Police Department.

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©2019 Chicago Tribune

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