Jussie Smollett, the actor who was alleged to have fabricated an elaborate hate crime last February, did the nation a great service by focusing the public’s attention on the issue of false hate crime reports. As Wilfred Reilly details in the cover article in this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, these abuses of the public trust happen with unacceptable frequency. What’s more, when the perpetrators are prosecuted for their crime, which isn’t especially often, it’s often for a misdemeanor charge that results in a wrist slap. The national press attention received bythe allegation of a hate crime is never matched by the attention paid to the revelation that the whole thing was a hoax, and the nation languishes in the mistaken impression that the country is awash in hatred and injustice.
Well, it seems that Smollett isn’t done performing unintentional services to the nation. Now, he’s exposing the hypocrisy of the justice system.
On Tuesday, the charges against Smollett were summarily dropped by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. The circumstances of his absolution are bizarre. Foxx, who had at one point recused herself from the case due to her compromising “familiarity with potential witnesses in the case,” un-recused herself and announced what can only be called a deal between Smollett and prosecutors.
“After reviewing all 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,” a statement from Foxx’s office reads, “we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case.” In other words, the county prosecutors have accepted a fine from Smollett in the form of an un-discharged bond and community service even as they allege that there is no charge they could successfully prosecute. Smollett has, in effect, agreed to a plea agreement without ever having to plead guilty.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons why Cook County might have declined to prosecute Smollett. Maybe city police botched the investigation. Perhaps evidence in this case was insufficient to secure a conviction. But all of that is betrayed by what is essentially an admission on Smollett’s part that he was, in fact, guilty.
It isn’t as though city officials are acting particularly embarrassed by their conduct in this case. “Do I think justice was served? No,” said Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson in a press conference. “I think this city is still owed an apology.” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel agreed. “He did this all in the name of self-promotion,” the mayor said. “This is a whitewash of justice.” It sure seems that way.
Emanuel lamented the fact that the city has not recouped from Smollett anything approaching the costs the city dedicated to investigating his claims. Twenty-four detectives were removed from regular casework and dedicated to this high-profile snipe hunt, amounting to 1,000 hours of salary and untold overtime pay. Hundreds of hours were dedicated to surveying police and private camera footage, executing 50 search warrants, subpoenaing phone records, interviewing persons of interest, and delving into social media and financial records. Smollett surrendered just $10,000 to the city, but his allegations undoubtedly cost taxpayers far more.
All of this is to say that Smollett should be held to account for what his attorneys admit was the work of two Nigerian brothers, Smollett’s acquaintances and extras on the set of his TV show Empire, and not two MAGA hat-clad racist homophobes. But Cook County’s prosecutors want to have it both ways. They want to insist that Smollett has paid his debt to society while insisting there is no debt to be paid. Smollett himself insists that he is innocent of the charges against him, despite surrendering a portion of his bond to the state. If Smollett’s supporters possessed an ounce of consistency, they’d be calling this state-supported extortion a grave injustice. But they’re not, and we all know why.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Smollett was the beneficiary of a two-track justice system in this case. Few perpetrators of high-profile hate crime hoaxes are so fortunate. It is, indeed, a miscarriage of justice—and it’s one that we will undoubtedly see repeated as the incentives for fabricating hate crimes become even more enticing.