In a stunning reversal, Chicago prosecutors agreed Tuesday to drop all charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, who had been accused of staging a fake hate crime.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office issued a brief statement explaining the decision, and did not say that Smollett had been exonerated. Instead, prosecutors cited Smollett’s volunteer work and said the case had reached an “appropriate” outcome. Smollett will forfeit a $10,000 bond payment, but was not obliged to admit guilt.
“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 prosecutors’ office said.
Appearing outside court, Smollett thanked his supporters and claimed vindication.
“I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I’ve been accused of,” Smollett said.
The actor had been indicted on 16 counts of filing a false police report, stemming from his alleged staging of a Jan. 29 hate attack. Smollett claimed that two men assaulted him, poured bleach on him, put a rope around his neck and uttered homophobic and racist slurs.
Chicago police expended hundreds of man-hours tracking down the alleged perpetrators, who turned out to be Smollett’s personal trainer and the trainer’s brother. Police alleged that Smollett paid the men, Abel and Ola Osundairo, $3,500 to carry out the attack.
In a press conference on Feb. 21, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson slammed Smollett for “smearing” the city of Chicago.
“To insinuate and stage a hate crime of this nature — it’s just despicable,” Johnson said at the time. “It makes you wonder what’s going through someone’s mind to do something like that.”
Judge Steven G. Watkins accepted the agreement on Tuesday morning, and granted a defense request to seal the case.
Andrew Weisberg, a Chicago defense attorney and former prosecutor, was in court when the announcement was made.
“My jaw hit the ground when I heard it,” he said. “I was stunned. Nobody gets this type of treatment. I’ve never seen such a thing.”
Smollett was not expected to get jail time, though it would be customary for a defendant to have to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and serve probation.
At a press conference, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel blasted the deal as a “whitewash of justice.” Johnson said he was not given advance notice of the deal.
“We found out about it when you all did,” he said.
Emanuel said the deal indicates that high-profile people will get better treatment from the justice system.
“From top to bottom this is not on the level,” Emanuel said. “This sends an unambiguous message that there is no accountability, and that is wrong.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx had earlier said she would recuse herself from the case, after having a conversation with a Smollett family member early in the investigation. Foxx said she would defer decisions on the case to Joseph Magats, her top assistant. Risa Lanier, the chief of the criminal prosecutions bureau, represented the office in court.
In an interview with the New York Times, Magats said that the office stands by the police investigation.
“We didn’t exonerate him,” Magats said, adding that the office seeks to prioritize violent crime and that Smollett does not pose a threat to the community. “We stand behind the investigation, we stand behind the decision to charge him and we stand behind the charges in the case. The mere fact that it was disposed of in an alternative manner does not mean that there were any problems or infirmities in the case or the evidence.”
Smollett’s attorneys, Tina Glandian and Patricia Brown Holmes, issued a statement Tuesday morning calling the actor “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 attorneys said. “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 Smollett family released a statement saying that “this morning truth has prevailed.”
“Our son and brother is an innocent man whose name and character has been unjustly smeared,” the statement read. “Jussie is a son, a brother, a partner, a champion for human rights, and a genuine soul who would never be capable of what he was falsely accused of. He was the victim of an assault and then falsely blamed for his own attack. This morning truth has prevailed and he has been vindicated. All charges have been dismissed and his record expunged (cleared).”
Representatives for 20th Century Fox Television, the production company behind Fox’s “Empire,” said “Jussie Smollett has always maintained his innocence and we are gratified on his behalf that all charges against him have been dismissed.”