Chicago mayor lashes out after prosecutors drop Jussie Smollett charges

by Reuters
Tuesday, 26 March 2019 18:16 GMT

(Adds comments from Chicago mayor, police superintendent)

By Brendan O'Brien and Gina Cherelus

CHICAGO/NEW YORK, March 26 (Reuters) - Chicago prosecutors on Tuesday dropped charges accusing "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett of staging a phony hate crime, a stunning move that drew the fury of the city's police superintendent and the mayor, who called the decision a "whitewash of justice."

Smollett, who is black and gay, told reporters on Tuesday that he had always told the truth when he said two masked men threw a noose around his neck and poured chemicals on him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs and expressing support for U.S. President Donald Trump in January.

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel lambasted the surprise reversal by Cook County prosecutors, emphasizing that a grand jury concluded the attack was a hoax and hammering Smollett for claiming to be a victim.

"This is a whitewash of justice," Emanuel told a news conference. "From top to bottom, this is not on the level."

The case touched off a furor in the United States, where Trump's 2016 presidential victory has fueled increasingly heated political divisions over race and sexual orientation.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said he had not known of prosecutors' plans to drop the charges until an unexpected court hearing on Tuesday.

"Do I think justice was served? No," Johnson told reporters. "I think this city is still owed an apology."

Prosecutors could not immediately be reached for a response.

The Cook County State Attorney's office said earlier on Tuesday that it viewed the outcome as a "just disposition," though prosecutors also said they stood by the initial decision to charge Smollett with filing a false report.

Initial reports of the attack bolstered critics of the president who say his rhetoric has encouraged racial violence, and Smollett earned widespread sympathy from celebrities and some Democratic presidential candidates.

But police arrested Smollett on Feb. 21, accusing the actor of paying two brothers $3,500 to stage the attack in an effort to use the notoriety to advance his career.

The brothers, who were arrested after getting captured on surveillance footage near the site of the alleged assault, confessed to their role in Smollett's plot and were released without charges, authorities said in February. One of them had worked with Smollett on "Empire," Fox's hip-hop TV drama, according to police.

The charges against Smollett gave fresh ammunition to Trump's supporters, who argue the press is too quick to embrace any news that casts the president in a negative light.

Smollett, who plays a gay musician on "Empire," had pleaded not guilty to the charges against him on March 14.

His lawyers said the attack occurred as the actor described, calling him a "victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator."

"I've been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one," Smollett told reporters earlier on Tuesday outside a Chicago courthouse, where he posed for photos with supporters after a brief court hearing during which prosecutors abandoned the case. (Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Gina Cherelus in New York Additional reporting by Peter Szekely Writing by Joseph Ax Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)

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