Five months after actor Jussie Smollett's alleged staging of a hate crime in Chicago, unanswered questions surrounding the prosecution of his case finally will be answered. It's about time.
Cook County Judge Michael Toomin's Friday ruling ordering a special prosecutor to investigate why the office of State's Attorney Kim Foxx dropped 16 charges against Smollett embodies a crucial principle: to get to the truth in criminal cases. Cook County citizens are entitled to an honest administration of justice, not one driven by celebrity and connections. The local and national suspicion that someone improperly cut a sweet deal for the actor -- a deal not available to other Cook County defendants -- continues to suffuse this case.
It's now possible that Smollett, the one-time lead actor in the Chicago-based Fox series "Empire," could get charged anew, this time by the special prosecutor. This case is not over nor should it be. It has undercut the morale of Chicago Police Department detectives, cost the city more than $130,000, and raised questions about the competence of Cook County prosecutors who wield great influence over which cases to pursue. Former state appellate Judge Sheila O'Brien was right to petition the courts for a formal review, and Toomin was right to call for an outsider to investigate.
A crucial passage from Tribune reporter Megan Crepeau's breaking report on Toomin's ruling: The special prosecutor, yet to be named by Toomin, will have a wide mandate. The individual may investigate "the actions of any person or office involved in all aspects of the case," Toomin said, and could recharge Smollett or bring an indictment against anyone else if there were reasonable grounds to do so.
To briefly recap: Foxx's office abruptly dropped charges against Smollett in late March after he allegedly faked a hate crime against him. On one of the coldest days of 2019, Smollett on Jan. 29 claimed supporters of President Donald Trump attacked him in his Streeterville neighborhood, shouted slurs, hit him in the face, tossed an unknown substance on him and put a rope around his neck.
That story began to unwind, however. The two alleged perpetrators, brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola "Abel" Osundairo, had ties to Smollett. There were phone records, store receipts, cab rides and peculiarities that led investigators to suspect a plot. And then a grand jury charged Smollett with 16 criminal counts for allegedly filing a false police report, disorderly conduct and lying to police. Foxx's office, however, dropped all charges at an unannounced court hearing and with no notice to the CPD investigators. The court file immediately was sealed. And Smollett walked.
At one point, Foxx had recused herself from the case due to conflicts of interest. A lawyer who had been chief of staff to former first lady Michelle Obama had reached out to Foxx on behalf of the Smollett family. Then Foxx was inconsistent, repeatedly, about her actions, her office's decisions and why all charges got erased. None of it made sense.
An outsider with the power to extract answers under oath can clear up many questions, among them: Who were the outsiders who sought to influence how Foxx guided this case? What -- or who -- motivated the politically connected lawyer to get involved? Why did Foxx recuse herself but then remain involved? Why were all charges dropped despite her office saying the police work was solid?
Foxx appears to be cranking up her reelection campaign for state's attorney. The Smollett case has cast shadows on that effort. More important, it suggests that clout and celebrity skewed the administration of justice, that Smollett got treated with velvet gloves when other defendants accused of similar crimes have to face justice.
Getting to the truth justifies this independent investigation. In a case loaded with bad calls, Judge Toomin made a good one.
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