NEW YORK – Following the public directives of President Donald Trump, the FBI and Department of Justice have begun to investigate the case of actor Jussie Smollett after Chicago prosecutors sparked outrage this week by announcing that they would be dropping all charges against the “Empire” HBO actor in exchange for only forfeiting his $10,000 bond and performing 16 hours of community service.
“FBI & DOJ to review the outrageous Jussie Smollett case in Chicago. It is an embarrassment to our Nation!” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
Smollett, who was accused of faking a hate crime against himself in order to generate publicity in regards to an alleged pay-rate dispute with Empire, had previously been indicted on 16 felony counts related to the incident.
The FBI officially launched a probe into the controversial March 26 dismissal of the charges against Smollett on Thursday, as well as accusations that Smollett had mailed himself a threatening letter on January 22, prior to the alleged hoax attack. The letter, with an unknown white powder in the envelope – later revealed to be Tylenol – possessed text that read “Smollett, Jussie you will die” and “MAGA.”
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Previously, prosecutors had insisted that the case against Smollett was “airtight” and that they possessed ample evidence to secure a conviction against him, making the decision to subsequently drop the case all the more surprising given the actor’s high-profile charges. In response, both the mayor and police chief of Chicago have both publicly condemned the dismissal and Smollett’s alleged hoax.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who had previously recused herself from the investigation due to her “familiarity with potential witnesses in the case,” defended the actions of her office, saying “I believe this is a just outcome based on the circumstances.” Foxx’s recusal was seen as unusual at the time, as were the murky series of events that lead up to the eventual dismissal of the charges against Smollett.
As a part of the deal, Smollett’s record has been expunged and the court case sealed; these facts have contributed to the public demand for details and transparency behind the deal prosecutors struck with the actor.
Early in the morning on January 29, 2019, Smollett said that he was the victim of a hate-based attack in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. Smollett, who is black and gay, told police that he was physically assaulted by two ski-mask wearing suspects who called him racial and homophobic slurs, in addition to declaring that “This is MAGA country” in reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. In addition to the beating he alleged to have received from the assailants, Smollett also said that the men poured bleach on him and tied a noose around his neck.
However, after an investigation, Chicago Police said that they had determined that Smollett had actually orchestrated the incident himself as a publicity stunt to help further his career as an actor. Police officials revealed that Smollett had hired two men that he knew from his gym for $3,500 to stage the attack, and surveillance video was disclosed showing the two men in a store buying items that were later used in the deception. On February 20, 2019 Smollett was charged with a class four felony for filing a false police report and surrendered himself to Chicago Police the next day. He was eventually indicted on 16 felony counts of “false report of offense” related to the incident.
As a result of the charges, Smollett’s character was removed from the final two episodes of Empire’s fifth season.
Public reaction to Smollett’s case was initially divided between those who believed and supported the actor’s account of the attack, and those who expressed skepticism based on some of the inconsistent and unusual details of the case. When Smollett’s alleged deception was revealed by police and charges brought against him, outrage was sparked in many circles due to the perceived damage Smollett’s false accusation hoax could have caused to the believability of true victims of violent hate crimes, in addition to his perceived betrayal of the public’s trust in general.
“Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson said at the time of Smollett’s arraignment. “How can an individual who’s been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in the city in the face with these false claims?” Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi at the time added, “Allegations against Mr. Smollett are shameful and if proven, they are an affront to the people of Chicago who embraced him as a neighbor and respected him as a role model.”
Since the dismissal of his charges, Smollett has released bizarre public statements declaring himself to have been completely exonerated, despite repeated insistence from the State’s Attorney office that they do not feel he is innocent. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the decision to drop the case a “whitewash of justice” and that “from top to bottom, this is not on the level.” Police superintendent Eddie Johnson said that justice was not served.
The FBI, which has assisted the Chicago Police Department from the beginning of the investigation into Smollett’s alleged hoax, is now looking into the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of his charges; in addition, there is the possibility that Smollett could be brought up on federal charges related to the mailing of the threatening letter which the Chicago police have alleged Smollet sent to himself.