Jussie Smollett alleged assault
On January 29, 2019, American actor Jussie Smollett told police that he was attacked in the early morning at the 300 block of East Lower North Water Street in Chicago's Streeterville by two white men who physically attacked him after racial and homophobic slurs, poured an unknown chemical substance, possibly bleach, on him and tied a rope around his neck. On February 20, 2019, Smollett was indicted for disorderly conduct consisting of allegedly paying two Nigerian-American brothers to stage a fake hate crime assault on him and filing a false police report. Smollett's defense team reached a deal with prosecutors on March 26, 2019, in which all charges were dropped in return for Smollett performing community service and forfeiting his $10,000 bond. On March 27, 2019, it was announced that the FBI would be investigating as to why the charges were dismissed.
On January 22, 2019, a letter arrived at the Chicago studio of Smollett's employer that was addressed to Smollett and depicted a stick figure hanging from a tree with a gun pointing towards it. It read "Smollett, Jussie you will die" and "MAGA" and contained a white powder determined to be Tylenol. On January 29, 2019, Smollett said that he was attacked in the early morning of that day in the 300 block of East Lower North Water Street in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood, in what was initially investigated as a hate crime. The Chicago Police later determined Smollett orchestrated the attack.
Smollett told police that he was attacked outside his apartment building in -40 degree wind chill weather by two white men in ski masks who called him racial and homophobic slurs, and said "This is MAGA country", referencing President Donald Trump's slogan (despite Chicago only voting 12.5% for Trump) "Make America Great Again" and used their hands, feet, and teeth as weapons in the assault. According to a statement released by the Chicago Police Department, the two suspects then "poured an unknown liquid" on Smollett and put a noose around his neck. Smollett said that he fought them off. Smollett was treated at Northwestern Memorial Hospital; not seriously injured, he was released "in good condition" later that morning. The police were called after 2:30 am; when they arrived around 2:40 am, Smollett had a white rope around his neck. Smollett said that the attack may have been motivated by his criticism of the Trump administration and that he believed that the alleged assault was linked to the threatening letter that was sent to him earlier that month.
Public reaction to incidentEdit
On January 30, 2019, public figures expressed support for Smollett on social media. Entertainment industry figures, including Shonda Rhimes and Viola Davis, tweeted their outrage over the attack and support for Smollett. Democratic senators and presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker both described the attack as an attempted modern-day lynching. Booker urged Congress to pass a federal anti-lynching bill co-sponsored by him and Harris. In an interview with April Ryan of AURN, President Trump was asked about Smollett being attacked and said, "I think that's horrible. It doesn't get worse." Smollett faced skepticism regarding his claim of being attacked; he responded by saying that he believed that, if he had said his attackers were Mexicans, Muslims, or black people, "the doubters would have supported me much more ... And that says a lot about the place that we are in our country right now."
On February 13, Chicago police raided the home of two "persons of interest" in the case. The men are brothers, of Nigerian descent, who have acted as extras on Empire. Police recovered bleach and other items from the home. The brothers were held in police custody on suspicion of battery but were not charged. According to the brothers' attorney, they know Smollett from working on the show, and have also spent time with him at a gym. The two men were released February 15 without being charged with a crime, with Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi stating their release was "due to new evidence" from the interrogations.
The Chicago Police Department later told ABC News: "Police are investigating whether the two individuals committed the attack—or whether the attack happened at all." On February 16, two unnamed Chicago police sources informed CNN that Chicago police had discovered evidence indicating that Smollett had paid the two brothers $3,500 to stage the attack. Financial records indicate that the brothers purchased the rope found around Smollett's neck at a hardware store in Ravenswood over the weekend of January 25. They were seen in security camera footage in a clothing store where they bought the gloves, ski masks and a red hat that police said was used in the attack. The brothers asked specifically for a MAGA hat, which the store doesn't sell. Chicago Police reached out to Smollett's attorney for additional questioning.
On February 19, 2019, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx announced that she had recused herself from the investigation, due to her "familiarity with potential witnesses in the case", a move that prompted criticism from her predecessor, Anita Alvarez. Recusing herself would have required her to ask the court to appoint an outside attorney as a special prosecutor. Since she merely passed the case to someone on her staff, she was still responsible for its outcome.
Police alleged that Smollett staged the attack because he was dissatisfied with his pay on Empire.
Criminal charges and arrestEdit
On February 20, 2019, Smollett was charged by a grand jury with a class 4 felony for filing a false police report. Smollett's felony count charge in Illinois carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Smollett has hired attorney Mark Geragos in addition to Chicago-based attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson to work on his legal defense.
The next day, Smollett surrendered himself at the Chicago Police Department's Central Booking station; shortly thereafter, CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi stated that Smollett "is under arrest and in the custody of detectives". Guglielmi also said that Smollett was named as suspect in a criminal investigation for filing a fake police report, under a class 4 felony.
Later that day, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson held a press conference, gave details of the investigation, and explained how the department concluded that the alleged assault was staged. Chicago PD believe that Smollett staged the attack as a publicity stunt meant to further his career, as he was not satisfied with his salary. The brothers who say they helped stage the attack said that Smollett had the idea to fake the crime after the threatening letter he received did not receive as much attention as he wanted it to. Police alleged that the actor intended to further his career by tying the incident to racism in the United States and President Trump, and that Smollett sent himself the threatening letter.
Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr. set Smollett's bail at $100,000; a friend of the actor paid a $10,000 bond, and Smollett was released from custody on February 21. Smollett was required to surrender his passport.
On March 8, Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts of "false report of offense" related to the incident. On March 14, 2019, Smollett and his legal team entered a not guilty plea at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago.
On March 26, 2019, all charges filed against Smollett were dropped, with Judge Steven Watkins ordering the public court file sealed. First Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Magats said the office reached a deal with Smollett's defense team in which prosecutors dropped the charges upon Smollett performing 16 hours of community service and forfeiting his $10,000 bond. As of March 2019[update], the FBI was continuing to investigate the circumstances around the case.
Smollett's character was subsequently removed from the final two episodes of Empire's fifth season. Those episodes had not yet been aired. The studio stated on April 30, 2019 that “at this time there are no plans for the character of Jamal to return to Empire.” Fox announced that Empire will be canceled at the end of Season 6. Smollett claimed he had an untreated drug problem—his use of ecstasy. He also said he does not have issues with alcohol or his mental health.
Following Smollett's arraignment, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson held a press conference in which he spoke about Smollett, asking, "Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile? How can an individual who's been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face with these false claims? Bogus police reports cause real harm." He further called the accusations "a scar" that "Chicago...didn't earn and certainly didn't deserve."
During a public statement, Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said, "Allegations against Mr. Smollett are shameful and if proven, they are an affront to the people of Chicago who embraced him as a neighbor and respected him as a role model... We stand behind the work of our detectives."
It was reported that a former Obama era aide, a Chicago attorney, Tina Tchen, who served as former first lady Michelle Obama's chief of staff, and others were contacted to try to convince them to "Reach out to FBI to ask that they take over the investigation" in lieu of the Chicago Police Department, which was agreed upon. A Smollett family member responded, "Omg this would be a huge victory." In text messages, Foxx told an unknown person who contacted her through Tchen, that she "spoke to the superintendent" and was "trying to figure out logistics".
Controversy over charges being droppedEdit
The Illinois Prosecutors Bar Association (IPBA) said that the dismissal was "highly unusual", and that the "manner in which this case was dismissed was abnormal and unfamiliar to those who practice law in criminal courthouses across the state. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges alike do not recognize the arrangement Mr. Smollett received. Even more problematic, the State's Attorney and her representatives have fundamentally misled the public on the law and circumstances surrounding the dismissal." It described several of the statements made by the State's Attorney and her representatives regarding the handling of the case as false or misleading. The National District Attorneys Association released a statement saying that a prosecutor should not take advice from politically connected friends of the accused, should not recuse herself without recusing the entire office, and noted that "a case with the consequential effects of Mr. Smollett's should not be resolved without a finding of guilt or innocence."
Magats made a statement saying that the decision was not an exoneration of Smollett, "we stand behind the investigation, we stand behind the decision to charge him [...] The fact that [Smollett] feels that we have exonerated him, we have not. I can't make it any clearer than that". The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, strongly criticized the decision saying it was a "whitewash of justice" and that "From top to bottom, this is not on the level." Police superintendent Johnson said that justice was not served.
On March 27, 2019, the Chicago Police Department released the redacted police reports associated to the case. It was announced that the FBI is investigating why the charges were dismissed. The hearing to expunge Smollett's record was delayed on March 27. In April 2019, mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot said in a statement: "We've got a lot of things on our plate, a lot of pressing issues that are truly affecting people's lives. This doesn't rank as a matter of any importance to me."
On March 28, 2019, Chicago city attorneys under the guidance of then-Mayor Emanuel and Police Superintendent Johnson, sent Smollett a demand letter, requiring him to repay the city the sum of $130,106.15 "expended on overtime hours in the investigation of this matter". The letter warned that if this amount is not paid, then the Chicago Department of Law could prosecute Smollett for the alleged false statements to the City or "pursue any other legal remedy available at law". Under a cited statute, Smollett could face a fine of up to three times the damages the City sustained as a result of false statements. The city could also seek recovery of court costs, collection costs, and attorney fees. A court would have to determine whether Smollett is liable under the statute using the standard of preponderance of evidence. Smollett could be sued for $390,000 as the law allows for triple damages in the case of false reports.
On April 12, 2019, the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County against Smollett for the cost of overtime authorities expended investigating the alleged attack, specified in the complaint as $130,105.15. The suit further asked that Smollett be found liable for $1,000 "for each false statement he made to the city, in addition to three times the amount of the damages that the city sustained." According to a local news legal analyst, the discovery process would be of interest to the public as city attorneys would be seeking evidence for the civil trial, stating "They'll get tape recordings. They'll get video surveillance, they'll get phone records and they'll take depositions."
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