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Jussie Smollett Case Outcome Raises Questions of Celebrity Justice

Jussie Smollett
Paul Beaty/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Jussie Smollett walked out of a Chicago courtroom last week an innocent man. In exchange for a forfeited $10,000 bond, prosecutors dropped 16 charges alleging that the “Empire” actor had staged a fake hate crime and then lied to police about it.

Smollett’s record will be expunged, and in the eyes of the justice system, it will be as though it never happened.

Yet the judicial outcome did nothing to resolve the controversy over the case. Prosecutors defended the decision as the product of criminal justice reform, but to many observers, it reeked of celebrity privilege. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel denounced the move as a “whitewash,” and the police union and President Trump called for a federal probe.

The move has left Hollywood baffled. Smollett’s co-stars celebrated on social media, but the broader community may not be so welcoming. Onstage at last week’s GLAAD Media Awards, actor Sean Hayes joked that he was “on the Jussie Smollett diet.” “You hire two trainers and sweat for eight weeks,” he said, getting a big laugh from a room of film and TV executives, producers, agents and talent.

“Empire” is expected to get picked up for a sixth season, but Fox and parent Disney have yet to decide whether Smollett will be part of it.

In Chicago, the focus has turned from Smollett to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. Kim Foxx was elected the top prosecutor in 2016 on a platform of criminal justice reform. She won praise for backing a restorative justice court, an alternative approach in which offenders sit in “peace circles” with their victims and with members of the community.

“The solution to what’s happening in our neighborhoods is not solved by institutions,” Foxx said in 2017. “It’s by those who are in the neighborhoods, empowering communities to take hold of what happens to them and around them.”

But even some reformers think Foxx’s office botched the Smollett case by failing to adhere to restorative principles.

“I think what happened was a mistake,” said Sheila Murphy, a retired Chicago judge who co-directs the Restorative Justice Project at the John Marshall Law School. “They were trying to be kind. And kindness works. But they didn’t repair the damage.”

Some in the community saw Foxx’s office using the veneer of restorative justice to cut a break for a famous actor. Arewa Karen Winters, a Black Lives Matter activist whose nephew was killed by Chicago police in 2016, said she was “appalled” by the decision.

“I never thought I would agree with the Chicago Police Department on anything,” she said. “I think it’s elitism, and it’s black privilege. If he had been Ray-Ray in the ’hood, he would have been looking at some jail time.”

Kofi Ademola, another Chicago activist, said the thing he found most disturbing is that Trump and Emanuel are seeking further retribution. He said that Foxx’s office is generally moving in the right direction, but he wants to see the same treatment afforded to others.

“Jussie can’t be the exception to the rule,” Ademola said. “This better be something that is easily accessible and readily available for poor and marginalized folks who don’t have a platform like Jussie.”

Joseph Magats, Foxx’s top assistant, defended the outcome, noting that thousands of nonviolent offenders are given deferred prosecution agreements in which they do not have to admit guilt if they keep out of trouble for a year.

“I guess on the outside it does seem weird or different,” he told WLS-TV, the local ABC affiliate. “But these types of dispositions are available and do happen.”

Magats said that 5,700 people have had their charges dropped through deferred prosecution in the past two and a half years. But Smollett got a much better deal than those defendants. Instead of waiting a year, making restitution and completing the program, his case was dropped immediately after only two days of volunteer work.

In a restorative justice framework, Smollett would have to make some gesture of apology and atonement. Instead, he has been allowed to proclaim his innocence.
“This wasn’t a full restorative process,” said Elena Quintana, an expert who monitors and evaluates the Chicago restorative justice court. “It would have been better if he had been fully accountable. If he did set up [the attack], that’s a crappy thing to do, and he should be held accountable in proportion to the harm that was created.”

Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.