Independent counsel faults Chicago prosecutor’s dismissal of Jussie Smollett case

FILE PHOTO: Former "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett appears in a courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Court Building for his arraignment, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., February 24, 2020. Brian Cassella/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

August 17, 2020

By Peter Szekely

(Reuters) – A court-appointed independent counsel on Monday found Chicago prosecutors abused their discretion and may have violated legal ethics by dropping charges that former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett falsely reported he was attacked.

The allegations are the latest twist in a dizzying swirl of claims and counter-claims in the case that began in January 2019 when Smollett, who is black and openly gay, told police he was accosted on a darkened street in a hate crime by two masked strangers.

Smollett was initially charged in a 16-count indictment with falsifying the incident. But the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the case three weeks later on March 26, 2019, drawing an outcry from police and city officials.

In his report, the counsel, former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, cleared the State’s Attorney’s Office of any criminal activity or claims that it responded to improper outside influence when it dropped the hoax charges against Smollett.

Webb’s report said, however, that he “did develop evidence that establishes substantial abuses of discretion and operational failures by the (State’s Attorney’s Office) in prosecuting and resolving the initial Smollett case.”

Webb also said county prosecutors, including State’s Attorney Kim Foxx who recused herself from the Smollett case, made false statements that may violate state legal ethics rules.

The State’s Attorney’s Office rejected Webb’s claim, adding that it never deliberately issued inaccurate statements. But in an email, the office noted it had already made a number of changes, including hiring an ethics officer.

Webb was appointed by a Cook County judge last year as a special prosecutor to review the handling of the case. In the course of his review, Webb filed renewed hoax-related charges against Smollett, to which the actor pleaded not guilty on Feb. 24.

Smollett lost his role as a singer-songwriter in “Empire,” a Fox television hip-hop drama, after the accusations he had filed a false report.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown)