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Law & the Courts

The Jussie Smollett Travesty

Jussie Smollett attends a screening of the television series “Empire” in Los Angeles, Calif., March 12, 2015. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

Chicago prosecutors, dropping the case against Jussie Smollett for allegedly filing a false report that caused a spasm of national anguish and anger two months ago, are hinting that they believe Smollett is in fact guilty of fabricating the supposed January 29 attack — but think he should be only lightly punished. Very lightly: They require that he forfeit a bond of $10,000 and do community service, although it is unclear whether this means some unrelated community service Smollett has already done for reasons unrelated to the great Subway Sandwich ambush of 2019. They did not extract a guilty plea or even a nolo plea. They were holding a lot of cards, and yet they folded.

The toxic repercussions of this are quite obvious and have already begun. The prosecution’s action allows Smollett, for his part, to proclaim complete vindication and revert to his story that he was viciously attacked by two guys. The media is now rushing back to Smollett’s side, or to advise us that the whole thing is so mysterious and complex that we should just shut up about it. Ludicrous as Smollett’s account is, damning as the evidence against him is, the likes of CNN’s Brian Stelter are shrugging and saying, “Hey, I guess we’ll never know what happened!” You would have to be very thick to think this, given the changing nature of Smollett’s story and its many far-fetched details. But if Smollett is innocent of fabricating a hoax, why would he submit to even a minimal punishment of, in effect, paying a $10,000 fine? Isn’t he the aggrieved party here? You aren’t supposed to be fined for getting beaten up by two thugs.

Several media outlets report that police had no idea this was coming and are infuriated by the development, having had no reason to doubt their theory of the case and having expended considerable resources tracking down what happened. Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson just said he found out about at the same moment the public did.

It ought to be blindingly obvious to Chicago prosecutors that if a hate-crime hoaxer is allowed to get away with it, this constitutes an engraved invitation to others who might be inclined to paint themselves as victims and bask in the inevitable national-cynosure status while precious police resources get tied up in one of the most dangerous cities in America on the investigation of nonexistent crimes.

Says Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “From top to bottom, this is not on the level … At the end of the day, it’s Mr. Smollett that committed this false claim upon two individuals and who also testified, but also on the city… there needs to be a level of accountability throughout the system, and this sends an ambiguous message that there is no accountability and that is wrong.”

Just so. What the prosecution has done makes no sense whatsoever. If Smollett did not file a false report, then he shouldn’t be punished in any way and the police must pursue the two hate-crime attackers who remain at large. But if Smollett did lie, he ought to be vigorously punished. Some nominal fine and community service, unaccompanied by a guilty plea, fall far short of the degree of punishment that is necessary both to impress upon Smollett the gravity of what he has done and to deter future Smolletts from following his lead.


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