By Megan Crepeau, Madeline Buckley and Jason Meisner Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — In a stunning reversal, Cook County prosecutors on Tuesday dropped all charges against "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett for allegedly staging a phony attack and claiming he was the victim of a hate crime.
Calling it “a whitewash of justice,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel blasted the decision, emphasizing repeatedly that a grand jury had chosen to bring 16 counts of disorderly conduct against Smollett.
“From top to bottom, this is not on the level,” Emanuel told reporters at an afternoon news conference.
Why the state’s attorney’s office made the sudden about-face wasn’t immediately clear. The office issued only a one-sentence statement.
“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 statement said.
At Emanuel’s side at the news conference, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stood by the work of detectives and said he believed the city was owed an apology.
“Do I think justice was served? No,” Johnson said.
Area Central Detective Cmdr. Edward Wodnicki, whose detectives led the investigation, said prosecutors gave no heads up to police that charges would be dropped. He also expressed concern that it left it looking as if police mishandled the investigation. Detectives uncovered “overwhelming” evidence against Smollett, he said.
“It’s absolutely a punch in the gut,” Wodnicki told a Tribune reporter. “We worked very, very closely throughout our three-week investigation to get to the point where we arrested the offender. So for the state’s attorney’s office at this point to dismiss the charges … without discussing this with us at all is just shocking.”
Chicago mayor, police superintendent speak after charges against Jussie Smollett dropped
WATCH LIVE: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson speak after charges against actor Jussie Smollett were dropped.
Posted by PBS NewsHour on Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Before departing the courthouse Tuesday, 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.
Smollett’s attorney, Patricia Brown Holmes, said the defense reached no deal with prosecutors. Smollett agreed to forfeit his $100,000 bond “so he could go on with his life and get this over with,” she said.
Smollett had to post 10 percent of that — or $10,000. Ordinarily, that money would be returned to him or his attorneys.
The stunning decision to drop the 16 counts of disorderly conduct was presumably made without the input of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who recused herself from the case last month after revealing she’d 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 Chicago police Superintendent Eddie 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 police Superintendent 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.
For unclear reasons, Judge Steven Watkins ordered the public court file sealed.
There had been no clue that prosecutors planned the about-face before the announcement. 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 judgement.
“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."
Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi declined immediate comment, saying he expected both Superintendent Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel would address the issue later in the day.
“Everyone knows how the department feels,” Guglielmi told a Tribune reporter. “The superintendent and mayor will (speak) on the city and department’s behalf.”
At a news conference last month announcing the charges against the celebrity, Johnson spoke out in anger about Smollett, saying his hoax dragged "Chicago's reputation through the mud."
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 the 300 block of East North Water Street 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 claimed two men approached him near his Streeterville apartment building, yelled racist and homophobic slurs, hit him and put a noose after his neck. 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."
The 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 Smollett's relative was specifically concerned about leaks to the media that purportedly came from the Police Department.
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