January 29, 2023
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National Recap: Jussie Smollett’s charges dropped

Chicago prosecutors dropped all charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett on March 26. Smollett was arrested Feb. 21 for allegedly staging a hate crime against himself in downtown Chicago in January.

Smollett alleged that in the attack, he was confronted by masked men who called him racist and homophobic slurs and referenced President Donald Trump’s policies. When the allegation first came out, Smollett was flooded with public support and many attributed the incident to a rise in hate crimes in the U.S.

The dropping of charges does not exonerate Smollett, the attorney office said in a statement, but is rather a part of an alternative prosecution the office deemed appropriate for the actor’s crimes.

“This is not a new or unusual practice,” the office said. “An alternative prosecution does not mean that there were any problems or infirmities with the case or evidence. … We did not exonerate Mr. Smollett. The charges were dropped in return for Mr. Smollett’s agreement to do community service and forfeit his $10,000 bond to the City of Chicago.”

However, as the case progressed, investigators had a difficult time corroborating evidence of the attack. No surveillance footage of the attack was taken, there were no witnesses and it was not reported from the scene of the attack. The two suspects eventually found — brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, who knew Smollett — testified that Smollett had coordinated a fake attack against himself and paid them to execute it. In addition to the attack, the police eventually found that Smollett allegedly sent a threatening letter to himself, which he also reported.

In the state of Illinois, falsely reporting a hate crime against oneself falls into the category of disorderly conduct. Prior to the Cook County state’s attorney office’s decision to drop the charges against Smollett, the actor had 16 counts of disorderly conduct against him.

When questioned about the charges, Smollett insisted on his innocence and denied he even had the capacity to frame such an attack on himself.

“I have been truthful and consistent on every level since day one,” Smollett said. “I would not be my mother’s son if I were capable of one drop of what I’ve been accused of.”

These charges spurred a debate about identity politics in the media. While some of Smollett’s initial supporters retracted their support and condemned his alleged actions, others insisted on continuing to support him.

Following the accusations, Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at the National Review, told the New York Times that Smollett’s story was so supported because of the narrative it presents about Trump supporters and racists in the U.S.

“I think that the initial reaction suggested that there is a lot of credulity, especially among liberals who were looking at a story that seemed to confirm their impressions about Trump supporters,” Ponnuru said.

The announcement of the dropped charges angered Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who still believes Smollett is guilty, and he admonished Smollett for using the notion of a hate crime for publicity. He also deemed Smollett’s allegation an insult to the Chicago Police Department and the city itself and said he was upset at Smollett’s seemingly minimal punishment.

“This is a person who has been let off scot-free with no sense of accountability of the moral and ethical wrong of his actions,” Emanuel said.

Meredith Burke can be reached at mburke@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @meredithsburke