Jussie Smollett charges were dropped because conviction was uncertain, prosecutor says

Jussie Smollett is seen after a court appearance in Chicago, Illinois. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The prosecutor who dropped disorderly conduct charges against actor Jussie Smollett defended the decision, saying her office was uncertain it had enough evidence to gain a conviction and wanted to focus on bigger crime in Chicago, she wrote in an op-ed.

The prosecutor, Kim Foxx, the Cook County state's attorney, wrote in an op-ed in The Chicago Tribune on Friday that she welcomed an "outside, nonpolitical review of how we handled this matter."

The case involved Smollett, a star of the television show Empire, who claimed he was a victim of a hate crime in Chicago. Smollett, who is black and gay, told authorities he was attacked in January by two men who yelled homophobic and racial slurs at him, tied a rope around his neck and poured a chemical substance on him.

Nearly a month later, he was arrested by police, who maintained he had staged the assault and falsely reported it. Initially there was an outpouring of support for Smollett, but as the story turned, so did public sentiment.

Smollett, who denied the allegations, was charged with 16 counts of disorderly conduct, but on Tuesday, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office dropped all of the charges.

"Yes, falsely reporting a hate crime makes me angry, and anyone who does that deserves the community's outrage," Foxx wrote. "But, as I've said since before I was elected, we must separate the people at whom we are angry from the people of whom we are afraid."

Foxx wrote that there were "specific aspects of the evidence and testimony presented" that made securing a conviction uncertain. She did not elaborate.

She also said Smollett was charged with a class 4 felony, which was on par with pulling a fire alarm at a school or "draft card mutilation."

Those kinds of charges are "routinely resolved, particularly in cases involving suspects with no prior criminal record, long before a case ever nears a courtroom and often without either jail time or monetary penalties," she wrote.

The decision to drop the charges drew a sharp rebuke from the police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, and the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who called the decision a "whitewash of justice."

"You cannot have, because of a person's position, one set of rules apply to them and one set of rules apply to everybody else," Emanuel said.

The mayor also wanted Smollett to pay more than US$130,000 (S$170,000) to cover the costs of the investigation.

The mayor's office on Saturday could not immediately be reached to comment on Foxx's op-ed, and the superintendent's office declined to comment.

Foxx, who took office in 2016, wrote that she was elected on "a promise to rethink the justice system, to keep people out of prison who do not pose a danger to the community."

She said she had pledged "to spend my office's finite resources on the most serious crimes in order to create communities that are both safer and fairer."

Joe Magats, the first assistant state's attorney, defended the decision this week. He said the prosecutor's office made violent crime a priority, adding, "I don't see Jussie Smollett as a threat to public safety."

Foxx said she believed Smollett had been punished enough in the public eye.

"Smollett's alleged unstable actions have probably caused him more harm than any court-ordered penance could," she wrote, adding that whatever harm was done to his image did not change the facts.

"Falsely reporting a hate crime is a dangerous and unlawful act, and Smollett was not exonerated of that in this case."

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