CHICAGO – Prosecutors dropped all 16 charges against actor Jussie Smollett, who was accused of staging a hate crime against himself, after he agreed to surrender a $10,000 bond, drawing strong rebukes from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his police superintendent.
Smollett, who stars on the Fox television show “Empire,” had been accused of planning and faking the January attack in which he said two men yelling racist and antigay slurs and a pro-Trump slogan hit him and placed a rope around his neck.
The latest twist in a case that has divided and sometimes baffled the nation came unexpectedly Tuesday with a statement from his lawyers about the charges being dropped that later was confirmed by prosecutors. But the facts of the case remain unclear – with defense attorneys claiming complete exoneration and prosecutors saying they stand behind the police investigation and their decision to charge him.
“We did not exonerate Smollett,” the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said in a statement. Kiera Ellis, a spokeswoman for the office, said the charges were dropped because Smollett forfeited his bond and completed 16 hours of community service at Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition.
Ellis said the prosecutor’s office treated the case as they would any other low-level felony where the defendant lacked a criminal record or “anything violent in his past.”
First Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Joseph Magats made the final decision, she said. The office said the case has now been sealed.
Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney for Cook County, recused herself from the case last month. Foxx made the decision “out of an abundance of caution” after she had conversations with a family member of Smollett’s and helped connect the family with police investigators, her office said.
Emanuel, a Democrat, said dropping the charges and sealing the case was a “whitewash of justice.” Speaking at a news conference, the mayor accused Smollett of abusing hate-crime laws to advance his career, hurting true victims of hate crimes, and using his celebrity to escape justice.
“You cannot have, because of a person’s position, one set of rules apply to them and another set of rules apply to everybody else,” he said.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, speaking at the same news conference, said, “At the end of the day, it’s Smollett who committed this hoax.” He said: “If he wanted to clear his name, the way to do that was in a court of law.”
Smollett spoke emotionally to the media about the anguish of surviving the alleged attack. The case drew strong reactions of support, as well as skepticism.
In an interview on ABC in February, Smollett criticized those who questioned his account. “It’s not necessarily that you don’t believe that this is the truth – you don’t want to even see the truth,” he said.
When police arrested him – saying he had paid two brothers he knew to stage the attack – those who had been skeptical of his story appeared to be vindicated.
“Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Johnson, the police superintendent, said at the time. “When we discovered the actual motive, quite frankly it pissed everybody off.”
Smollett’s attorney, Patricia Brown Holmes, said Tuesday the actor was attacked by two people he couldn’t identify. She called him “a victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator as a result of false and inappropriate remarks made to the public causing an inappropriate rush to judgment.”
Holmes said the money Smollett paid the attackers was for a fitness and nutrition regimen. She also said the brothers had admitted to carrying out the attack, though she declined to speculate why. “We don’t want to try them in the press any more than [Jussie] wanted to be tried in the press,” she said.
A lawyer for the two brothers didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Holmes, who served as a special prosecutor investigating whether Chicago police officers had lied about Laquan McDonald’s shooting death in 2014, said Smollett agreed to forfeit the bond so he could put the incident behind him.
In a brief televised appearance at the courthouse, Smollett thanked his supporters, his lawyers and the state of Illinois “for trying to do what’s right.” He also said he had been “truthful and consistent” from the start and that he now just “wants to get on with my work and life.”
Initially, prosecutors approved one charge against Smollett. But in early March, a grand jury indicted the actor on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report. The charges, which each carried a penalty of up to three years in prison, addressed different elements of Smollett’s allegedly false accounting of the incident.
Some legal experts said police and prosecutors revealed an extraordinary amount of information about the case when they announced the charge against Smollett, potentially tainting a future jury pool.
The disclosures were “arguably against the rules of professional conduct, “ said Jeffrey Urdangen, director of the Center for Criminal Defense at the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. But ultimately, he said, the defense may have found evidence that undermined the prosecution’s case.
“It’s highly unusual for the prosecution in a high-profile case like this to do a 180 in exchange for nothing,” he said.
The State’s Attorney’s Office said that it has resolved thousands of other cases with what it called “alternative prosecution.”
“An alternative disposition does not mean that there were any problems or infirmities with the case or the evidence,” it said in a statement.
Smollett was cut from some episodes of “Empire” after the charges were filed. In a statement Tuesday, Twentieth Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment said they were “gratified on his behalf that all charges against him have been dismissed.”
“Empire” is produced by Twentieth Century Fox Television, now owned by Walt Disney Co. The series airs on the Fox broadcast network, owned by the new stand-alone Fox Corp. Fox and Wall Street Journal parent News Corp share common ownership.