Cook County’s leading prosecutor thought a criminal case involving an alleged phony hate crime was dead and buried. But remarkably, it’s been resurrected.
Cook County politics is frequently entertaining — even more frequently unappetizing — but rarely moreso than this week, when a court-appointed special prosecutor adopted the role of skunk at a garden party hosted by Democratic Party bosses.
Playing the role of skunk was Chicago lawyer Dan Webb, who announced the re-indictment of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett for the alleged fake hate crime he orchestrated in January 2019, when he told police that he was physically attacked by racist and homophobic supporters of President Donald Trump.
From the beginning, Smollett’s story didn’t add up. He claimed, for example, that he fought off his attackers while holding a cellphone in one hand and a sandwich in the other.
But the national news media bought his version of events hook, line and sinker before the extensive police investigation showed it never happened. Evidence indicated Smollett allegedly hired two acquaintances to fake the assault so that Smollett, for reasons known only to him, could play the role of sympathetic victim and political martyr.
Once the subterfuge became known, public outrage ensued, and Smollett was indicted on multiple charges of disorderly conduct.
What followed was even more farcical. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dropped all the charges against him in March 2019, as clear a case of favorable treatment for a high-profile defendant as one can find.
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx gave multiple lame explanations for her actions but ultimately took responsibility for a poor decision while rejecting blame.
The irony continued to abound after Webb’s announcement. Just as Smollett blamed the fictitious attack on Trump, so, too, did Foxx blame Trump — indirectly — for the action by Webb.
“It can only be interpreted as a further politicization of the justice system, something voters in the era of Donald Trump should consider offensive,” Foxx said.
The indictment could have significant political ramifications because Foxx, who is extremely close to county party Chairwoman Toni Preckwinkle, is running for re-election in the March 17 Democratic primary. Her opponents, naturally, leaped at the opportunity to argue her unfitness for office.
The re-indictment never would have happened if a retired state appellate court justice — Sheila O’Brien — hadn’t petitioned the courts for the appointment of a special prosecutor to re-examine the case.
After weeks of legal maneuvering, Judge Michael Toomin appointed Webb to determine whether Smollett should be prosecuted for the alleged staged hate crime. Further, he directed Webb to determine if the decision by the state’s attorney’s office was the result of criminal wrongdoing.
While announcing that he has “reached no conclusions” on the issue of “wrongdoing” within the state’s attorney’s office, Webb said it is “in the interests of justice” that Smollett be re-charged.
He said the case against Smollett is justified because of “the extensive nature of Mr. Smollett’s false police reports, and the resources expended by the Chicago Police Department to investigate these false reports.”
For his part, Smollett continues to deny any impropriety. His lawyer expressed outrage over the charges, contending they were “appropriately dismissed the first time because they were not supported by the evidence.” If that is the case, his lawyer will have the opportunity to demonstrate her client’s innocence.
While this is a high-profile case, it is not a big case in the traditional sense — with one exception.
Foxx’s original decision to dismiss this case stands as a stark example of what many see as a dual system of justice — one for regular folks and another for those with some kind of clout, whether it be through politics or celebrity contacts.
That’s why Webb’s decision to hold Smollett accountable for his actions is a good one. If his action gives voters a reason to reconsider whether Foxx deserves another four-year term in office, so much the better.