Prosecutors dismiss charges against Smollett, draw backlash

Actor Jussie Smollett, center, leaves the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago after prosecutors dropped all charges against him on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Prosecutors dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett after the "Empire" actor accused of faking a racist, anti-gay attack on himself agreed to do volunteer service and forfeit his $10,000 in bail

CHICAGO — Infuriating Chicago's mayor and police chief, prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett on Tuesday after the "Empire" actor accused of faking a racist, anti-gay attack on himself agreed to let the city keep his $10,000 in bail. But he maintained his innocence and insisted he was attacked.

Prosecutors said they still believe Smollett concocted the assault. They gave no detailed explanation for why they abandoned the case only five weeks after filing the charges and threatening to pursue Smollett for the cost of a monthlong investigation.

The dismissal drew an immediate backlash. 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. At one point he asked, "Is there no decency in this man?"

Smollett's attorneys said his record was "wiped clean" of the 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was assaulted by two men. The actor, who also agreed to do community service, 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 told reporters after a court hearing. He thanked the state of Illinois "for attempting to do what's right."

In a statement, 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.

First Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Magats said prosecutors "stand behind the investigation and the facts."

When dropping cases, prosecutors will sometimes insist that the defendant accept at least a measure of responsibility. Outside court, neither Smollett nor his legal team appeared to concede anything about his original report in January .

Defense attorney 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 that Smollett, who is black and gay, knew the men and arranged for them to pretend to attack him.

Emanuel, who leaves office in May after two terms, said the hoax could endanger other gay people who report hate crimes by casting doubt on whether they are telling the truth.

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Chicago "is still owed an apology."

"I've heard that they wanted their day in court with TV cameras so that America could know the truth. They chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal to circumvent the judicial system," Johnson said at a graduation ceremony for new police cadets.

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

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

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

He 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," Turner said. "The reputation of the city has taken a tremendous blow."

Because Chicago was the primary victim, Turner argued, it would have been appropriate for prosecutors to consult the mayor and the 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 around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 in downtown Chicago. Investigators said he made the false report because he was unhappy with his pay on "Empire" and believed it would promote his career.

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

He reported that he was assaulted on his way home from a sandwich shop. Smollett said two masked men shouted racial and anti-gay slurs, poured bleach on him, beat him and looped a rope around his neck. He claimed they shouted, "This is MAGA country" — a reference to President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan. He asserted that he could see one of the men was white because he could see the skin around his eyes.

Police said Smollett hired two men, both of whom are black, to attack him. Smollett allegedly paid the men $3,500.

The men were brothers Abimbola "Abel" and Olabinjo "Ola" Osundairo, and one of them had worked on "Empire." An attorney for them has said the brothers agreed to help Smollett because of their friendship with him and the sense that he was helping their careers. They declined to comment.

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

Before the attack, police said, Smollett also sent a letter threatening himself to the Chicago studio where "Empire" is shot. The FBI, which is investigating that letter, has declined to comment.

Smollett said he wanted "nothing more than to get back to work." 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.

Fox Television, which produces "Empire," issued a one-sentence statement late Tuesday saying only that the company was "gratified" that the charges had been dropped.

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Associated Press Writer Caryn Rousseau contributed to this report.

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Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm

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Check out the AP's complete coverage  of the Jussie Smollett case.

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