The problem with the Jussie Smollett case is that people let it get under their skin.
By the time the actor was arrested for allegedly staging his own racial and homophobic attack, almost everyone, including the police, had lost all objectivity. In announcing the charges back in February, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett had dragged “Chicago’s reputation through the mud.”
At that point, it was personal.
On Tuesday, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office abruptly dismissed all charges against Smollett. Suddenly, the 16 counts of disorderly conduct for lying to the police went poof. Any hopes of the celebrity serving time in prison vanished.
Smollett walked out of the courthouse a free man. City officials and Americans, in general, were livid at what Mayor Rahm Emanuel called “a whitewash of justice.”
It has been a long time since we’ve seen a criminal case draw so much public outrage when the accused walked free, 24 years to be exact. That’s when a jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of murder.
Smollett, with his financial resources, good looks and political connections, became the latest high-profile black man to beat the racially biased criminal justice system. Let’s just be honest. Some people don’t like when that happens.
I can’t be sure about other parts of the country, but in Chicago, this case was never about race. It was about protecting Chicago’s reputation as a city where something so vile as dousing a gay black man with bleach while shouting “this is MAGA country” in reference to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” presidential campaign slogan could never occur.
Maybe it really happened. Maybe it didn’t. But for a moment, let’s put our opinions about Smollett’s guilt or innocence aside. Indulge me, if you would, in a game of “what if?”
Everybody knew that Smollett didn’t deserve to go to prison for filing a false police report. That 16-count grand jury indictment was overkill. The possibility of serving up to three years for a conviction on any single count was absurd.
The mayor knew it. The police knew it. And prosecutors knew it too.
It wasn’t as if no one had ever filed a false police report in Chicago before. It happens all the time. Most often, charges are dropped, if they are filed at all.
What if prosecutors saw that despite the evidence that he made the whole thing up, Smollett didn’t deserve to go to jail any more than the young college student who falsely reported that a black man had stabbed her in the abdomen during a robbery attempt in Grant Park?
What if there was no pressure from Smollett’s politically connected friends? What if no strings were pulled? What if no political promises were made? What if prosecutors simply concluded that the penalties didn’t fit the crime?
What if they realized that though the incident was divisive and deplorable, two days of community service and forfeiture of the $10,000 paid on his bond was fair restitution? What if prosecutors actually did taxpayers a favor by saving money on a trial that might have ended with an order of community service anyway?
What if they saved the city even more embarrassment in the long term by quashing a case that clearly had been overblown because it involved a celebrity who threw Trump’s name into the mix?
What if prosecutors were just trying to right what could have been a horrible wrong?
We don’t know what actually led prosecutors to make such a controversial move. Maybe it was all of the above, maybe none of it. The state’s attorney’s office would do the public justice by filling us in.
In the zeal to throw the book at Smollett, further damage was done to the credibility of a Police Department that already is struggling with an image problem. They took it too far. If this could happen to a TV star under the glare of the national spotlight, what might happen to an ordinary Joe behind closed doors?
One of the most troubling aspects of this case is how police allowed it to get so entangled in emotion. Once authorities were confident they had enough evidence to throw all the blame onto Smollett, they tossed any caution out the window. The department’s response was visceral, bordering on vindictive.
There were so many leaks from unidentified police sources before charges were filed that almost anyone paying attention had solidly concluded that Smollett was guilty. There would be no public presumption of innocence. The public’s mind was made up, and the police helped them do it.
The lame-duck mayor didn’t want this case to be part of his declining legacy. The police chief wanted to show the nation that authorities in Chicago know how to solve crimes quickly, though statistics indicate otherwise.
Johnson demanded an apology from Smollett for forcing the department to use countless hours of manpower doing its job investigating. That alone was unusual. When has any suspect ever said, “I’m sorry” to the police?
Now 36, Smollett was barely in his teens when Simpson became the most hated man in America. But maybe he learned something from Simpson’s ordeal.
Just because a man gets to walk out of a courthouse doesn’t mean people will ever let go of his chain.