Prosecutors abandon criminal case against Jussie Smollett

Authorities gave no detailed explanation for why they abandoned the case against the 'Empire' actor

Actor Jussie Smollett leaves court after charges against him were dropped by state prosecutors in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
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Prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett on Tuesday after the Empire actor – accused of falsely reporting that he was the victim of a racist, anti-gay attack – agreed to do volunteer service and let the city keep his $10,000 bail.

Authorities gave no detailed explanation as to why they abandoned the case, infuriating Chicago's mayor and police chief, only five weeks after filing the charges and threatening to pursue the actor for the cost of a month-long investigation.

Prosecutors said they still believed Smollett concocted the assault but the TV star insisted he told the truth all along.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the deal "a whitewash of justice" and lashed out at Smollett for dragging the city's reputation "through the mud" in a quest to advance his career.

"Is there no decency in this man?" Mr Emanuel asked.

The actor's lawyers said his record was "wiped clean" of the 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was assaulted by two men.

Smollett insisted that he had "been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one".

"I would not be my mother's son if I was capable of one drop of what I was being accused of," he said after a court hearing.

Smollett thanked the state of Illinois "for attempting to do what's right".

A spokeswoman for the Cook County prosecutors' office said the dismissal came "after reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case". Tandra Simonton called it "a just disposition and appropriate resolution" but said it was not an exoneration.

When dropping cases, prosecutors will sometimes insist the defendant accept at least some of the responsibility.

But outside court, neither Smollett nor his legal team appeared to concede anything about his original report in January .

His lawyer Patricia Brown Holmes said Smollett was "attacked by two people he was unable to identify" and "was a victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator".

Authorities alleged the actor, who is black and gay, knew the men and arranged for them to pretend to attack him.

Mr Emanuel, who is in his final weeks in office after two terms, said the hoax could endanger other gay people who reported hate crimes by casting doubt on whether they were telling the truth.

Police Supt Eddie Johnson stood by the department's investigation and said Chicago was "still owed an apology".

"I've heard that they wanted their day in court with TV cameras so America could know the truth," Mr Johnson said at a graduation ceremony for police cadets.

"They chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal to circumvent the judicial system."

Chicago's top prosecutor, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, recused herself from the investigation because of conversations she had with a member of Smollett's family.

Many legal experts were surprised by the dismissal, especially because it did not include the condition that Smollett apologise and admit he orchestrated the attack.

"This situation is totally bizarre. It's highly, highly unusual," said Phil Turner, a Chicago defence lawyer and former federal prosecutor with no ties to the case.

Mr Turner said it would be wrong to argue leniency on the grounds that no serious harm was done.

"The damage done was worse than a broken arm or money lost in a fraud," he said. "The reputation of the city has taken a tremendous blow."

Because Chicago was the primary victim, Mr Turner said, it would have been appropriate for prosecutors to consult the mayor and police chief in advance.

"That prosecutors didn't seem to do that is an insult to the city and police," he said.

Smollett reported that he was attacked about 2am on January 29 in downtown Chicago.

Investigators said he made a false report because he was unhappy with his pay on Empire and believed it would help to promote his career.

The actor plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox TV show, which follows a black family as they deal with the ups and downs of the recording industry.

Smollett  reported that he was assaulted on his way home from a sandwich shop.

He said two masked men shouted racial and anti-gay slurs, poured bleach on him, beat him and looped a rope around his neck.

Smollett claimed they shouted, "This is Maga country" in a reference to President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan.

He said he knew one of the men was white because he could see the skin around his eyes.

Police said Smollett hired two black men to attack him for $3,500.

The men were brothers Abimbola "Abel" and Olabinjo "Ola" Osundairo, and one of them had worked on Empire.

One of their lawyers has said the brothers agreed to help the actor because of their friendship with him and the sense that he was helping their careers.

Mr Holmes refused to answer questions about whether Smollett's team would seek legal action against the two.

Police said that before the attack, the actor sent a threatening letter to himself at the Chicago studio where Empire is shot. The FBI, which is investigating the letter, declined to comment.

Smollett said he wanted "nothing more than to get back to work and move on with my life", but his future with the show was unclear.

Shortly after the charges were filed, producers announced that his character would be removed from the final two episodes of the season.