CHICAGO (AP) — Prosecutors on Tuesday dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett, an astonishing reversal that the "Empire" actor called vindication, but that the Chicago mayor angrily dismissed as a "whitewash" of allegations that Smollett lied about being the target of a racist, anti-gay attack.
Actor Jussie Smollett accused of faking racist, homophobic attack on himself., Photo Date: March 14, 2019 / Photo: MSNBC / (Source: MGN)
Authorities said they still believe Smollett concocted the attack, and they offered little explanation for the decision to abandon the case barely five weeks after charges were filed. In return for the dismissal, Smollett agreed to do community service and to forfeit the $10,000 he paid to get out of jail.
The mayor and police chief blasted the move and stood by the investigation that concluded Smollett staged a hoax. Mayor Rahm Emanuel lashed out at Smollett, saying he had dragged 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 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 also said it not an exoneration.
In some dropped cases, prosecutors will 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 is in his final weeks in office after two terms, said the hoax could endanger other gay people who report hate crimes.
"Now this casts a shadow of whether they're telling the truth, and he did this all in the name of self-promotion," he said.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stood by the department's investigation and said Chicago is "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, 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.
"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 was accused of falsely reporting that he was attacked around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 in downtown Chicago. Investigators said he made the 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 are 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.
Before the attack, police said, Smollett sent a letter that threatened him to the Chicago studio where "Empire" is shot. The FBI, which is investigating that letter, has declined to comment.
Associated Press Writer Caryn Rousseau contributed to this report.