CHICAGO — After Jussie Smollett left Cook County Criminal Court a free man Tuesday, his record wiped clean and the high-profile criminal case against him dropped by prosecutors, many across the city were left angry and confused.
The Chicago Tribune editorial board called it “indefensible” that the actor had been given “a pass.” The city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, made the rounds on national media Wednesday, blasting what he said was an “abomination” of justice where celebrities received different treatment than average citizens. A stunned Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said the Empire actor was hiding behind “a deal brokered in secrecy” and maintained the “city is still owed an apology.”
But Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a Chicago-born professor of criminal justice, was just surprised that everyone appeared so surprised.
“The hypocrisy lies in the unspoken details and the context of what the city has been through,” the Temple University professor and author of Crook County, a book on the Chicago justice system, said. “There was no expressed outrage against known young black people who have been shot. They’ve never stood up and expressed such outrage when officers have been accumulating an enormous amount of violations.”
As the Smollett news caused shockwaves nationally, here in Chicago many activists and residents also scoffed at yet another scandal for the city’s justice system. But while some were frustrated with Smollett’s alleged preferential treatment, others like Van Cleve were angry at city officials, including the mayor and police superintendent, for the intensity and framing of their responses.
“Are they really in the position to be questioning the prosecution that dropped charges?” she said.
First Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Joseph Magats, who took over the prosecution after State’s Attorney Kim Foxx recused herself, told the New York Times the decision to drop the charges was appropriate because of the nature of the offense of which Smollett was accused.
“We work to prioritize violent crime and the drivers of violent crime. Public safety is our number one priority,” he said. “I don’t see Jussie Smollett as a threat to public safety.”
But Rev. Marshall Hatch, the chair of the the Leaders Network, a faith-based community group that advocates for Chicago’s West Side, told BuzzFeed News he wished that same standard applied to others in the city.
“State’s Attorney Foxx seems to have the same rapid response for celebrity justice, while poor people without bail or justice languish on jailhouse cots for months and years,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The uneven justice in Cook County grows more glaring by the day.”
Kevin Graham, the president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, also criticized Foxx, telling BuzzFeed News that Tuesday’s stunning decision — approved in an emergency court hearing — was the very reason his organization had pushed for federal officials “to investigate Kim Foxx and her involvement with the Jussie Smollett case” last week.
“Being extremely disappointed in Kim Foxx and in the State’s Attorney’s Office is an understatement,” Graham elaborated to WGN Radio on Tuesday. “What does this say to people who don’t have high-priced attorneys? What does this say to people who can’t afford to go into the court system and have a publicist?”
“The uneven justice in Cook County grows more glaring by the day.”
Emanuel also called out the special treatment he believes Smollett received because of his status as a celebrity.
“He’s an actor, a person of influence. He got treated differently than everyone else,” Emanuel said on Good Morning America. (Smollett, for his part, has maintained his innocence and continued to insist Tuesday he was the victim of an assault.)
But the mayor’s outspoken anger at what he said was a miscarriage of justice was dubbed hypocritical by some who pointed to his initial response to the 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by police officer Jason Van Dyke.
“He was much more vocal about the charges being dropped in the Smollett case, where even if a crime was committed no one was seriously harmed, than he ever was about the death of Laquan McDonald,” Kendall wrote. “It’s a sad comment on his priorities to see a greater reaction to 16 dropped charges than 16 bullets.”
Van Cleve, the criminal justice professor and Chicago native, also said Emanuel’s shock at the Smollett outcome would be better channeled elsewhere.
“It’s almost like we need to step back and not worry about the guilt or innocence of this actor, but we have to think about, this is kind of a normal thing that might happen in the city of Chicago, that prosecutors often use discretion to drop charges, especially small charges like this,” she told BuzzFeed News. “So for Rahm Emanuel to cherry-pick this case when officers are literally shooting and harming people in the city and have no sense of accountability is really a gross hypocrisy."
With a report Wednesday night that the FBI is now reviewing the handling of the case by Illinois authorities, Smollett and Chicago’s justice system will likely remain national news for some time to come. Even those preoccupied with their own high-profile legal cases in Chicago have been transfixed. Steve Greenberg, an attorney who is representing R. Kelly in the singer’s criminal sexual assault case, told BuzzFeed News he thought the Smollett case was a mess.
“I thought from the beginning there was a lot of questions about how the case was handled from all sides,” Greenberg said. “Stuff happened and it should not have gone to the point of felony prosecution. Now he might have gotten a little too much of a break.”