All charges against Empire actor Jussie Smollett have been dropped in an astonishing reversal after he was accused of lying about being the target of a racist, anti-gay attack.
While authorities offered little explanation for the decision to abandon the case barely five weeks after 16 charges were filed, Smollett described it as a vindication.
Smollett, who plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox TV show, was accused of falsely reporting to authorities he was attacked in the early hours of January 29 in downtown Chicago.
He reported he was assaulted on his way home from a sandwich shop, claiming two masked men shouted racial and anti-gay slurs, poured bleach on him, beat him and looped a rope around his neck.
He claimed they shouted, “This is MAGA country” – a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
He asserted he could see one of the men was white because he could see the skin around his eyes.
Police said Smollett paid the two men, both of whom are black, just under $5000 to attack him.
The men are brothers Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, and one of them had worked on “Empire”.
An attorney for them has said the brothers agreed to help Smollett because of their friendship with him and the sense he was helping their careers.
Investigators said he made the report because he was unhappy with his pay on “Empire” and believed it would promote his career.
City’s reputation dragged through the mud: mayor
But the mayor and police chief blasted the decision and stood by the investigation that concluded Smollett staged the hoax.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel lashed out at Smollett, saying he had dragged the city’s reputation “through the mud” in a quest to advance his career.
At one point he asked: “Is there no decency in this man?”
Smollett’s attorneys said his record had “been wiped clean” of the 16 felony counts, while the actor insisted he had “been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one”.
“I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I was being accused of,” he told reporters after a court hearing.
He thanked the state of Illinois “for attempting to do what’s right”.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Cook County prosecutors’ office said the dismissal came “after reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case”.
Tandra Simonton called it “a just disposition and appropriate resolution”.
First Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Magats said prosecutors still believed Smollett concocted the attack and “stand behind the investigation and the facts”.
He said the dismissal was not an exoneration.
In some dropped cases, prosecutors will insist the defendant accept at least a measure of responsibility.
Outside court, neither Smollett nor his legal team appeared to concede anything about his original report in January.
Defence attorney Patricia Brown Holmes said Smollett was “attacked by two people he was unable to identify” and “was a victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator”.
Mayor Emanuel, who is in his final weeks in office after two terms, said the hoax could endanger other gay people who reported hate crimes.
“Now this casts a shadow of whether they’re telling the truth, and he did this all in the name of self-promotion,” he said.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stood by the department’s investigation and said Chicago was “still owed an apology”.
“I’ve heard that they wanted their day in court with TV cameras so that America could know the truth. They chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal to circumvent the judicial system,” Supt Johnson said at a graduation ceremony for new police cadets.
Chicago’s top prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, recused herself from the investigation, citing conversations she had with a Smollett family member.
Police have also said before the attack, Smollett sent a letter that threatened him to the Chicago studio where “Empire” is shot.
The FBI, which is investigating that letter, has declined to comment on the investigation.
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