The Political Prosecution of Jussie Smollett
by Ted Pearson
The Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Thomas Mann, is famously said to have observed in Berlin in 1930 that “Everything is political.”
The case of Jussie Smollett is a case in point. The actor Jussie Smollett was attacked early one bitter cold early morning of January 29, on the Lower Level of East North Water Street, by men shouting racist, homophobic and pro-Trump epithets. He told his friend and agent about it, who called police, Smollett says, against his wishes. A few days later police charged that he had staged the attack to garner publicity for himself. A few weeks after that the Cook County State’s Attorney, Kim Foxx, dismissed the charges on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence for a conviction.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Chief Eddie Johnson immediately took to the air and denounced Foxx. In a bizarre turn retired Judge Sheila O’Brien petitioned the Cook County Criminal Court Chief Judge Leroy Martin, Jr., to appoint a special prosecutor to review the case, and then demanded that Martin recuse himself from the decision because his son works on Foxx’s staff. After expressing umbrage at the insinuation, Martin reluctantly assigned Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Toomin to the case. Toomin drafted former U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb, who jumped at the chance and said he’d take it at no cost to the County. He empaneled a special grand jury to hear the charges, which quickly indicted Smollett on six felony counts of filing false reports with police. On November 9, 2021, after a two-week trial before Judge James B. Linn, a jury of including only one Black person convicted Smollett on five of the six charges.
No recent case in Illinois has been as political as has been this case. Everyone gunning for SA Kim Fox has jumped on the convict Smollett bandwagon, from Mayor Emanuel and his successor, Lori Lightfoot, to the Trumpist leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police. Donald Trump himself referenced the case often in his failed 2020 campaign for re-election, and continues to harp on it.
People have a right to their own opinions. In a Harvard CAPS-Haris poll conducted in November 2021, 74 percent of those polled said they thought Smollett was guilty. The racial composition and breakdown of the results were not provided. The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (the Alliance) had called for supporting Smollett on its listserve of several thousand. Seventeen people responded, denouncing the call and declaring Smollett guilty. No one responded favorably.
Frank Chapman, Executive Director of the National Alliance, said via Facebook the day after the guilty verdict in the Smollett trial,
“I sat in this trial from Monday, Nov. 6, 2021 to Wednesday, Dec. 8th. and all I saw was prosecutors and lying witnesses presenting fabricated evidence to back up their lies. The evidence was … presented to a mostly white jury with one Black person on it, and the prosecutors presented their case with an unspeakable degree of racist and homophobic arrogance. With one Black person on the jury and a Judge openly hostile to the defense lawyers we are not surprised by the verdict of guilty.
“From the very beginning, two years ago, this case has been used as a political football against States Attorney Kim Foxx and our movement against police crimes in this city. … Jussie Smollett has always maintained his innocence and we believe him. We stand with the Smollett family whom we have known for decades to be warriors for justice. Justice for Jussie Smollett!!!”
There’s a boatload of Chicago politics in all the names above. Every case in court is political, it could be argued, but this case was totally about politics and little about evidence. Let’s review some of the people involved.
Dan K. Webb is Co-Executive Officer of one of the largest and wealthiest law firms in the United States. Winston and Strawn. Building on fame as prosecutor of Iran-Contra mastermind Admiral John Poindexter, and for his prosecution and conviction of dozens of judges, lawyers and cops for corruption in Operation Graylord, he has parlayed his reputation into gigs defending some of the biggest corporate names in the country, including Microsoft, the New York Stock Exchange, General Electric, Phillip Morris, Vonage, Guggenheim Partners, Beef Products, Ltd., BP, Boeing, J. P. Morgan Chase, Ernst & Young, Pfizer, Deloitte, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and other Trump associates. However, he was so outraged by Smollett’s behavior that he graciously decided to take a break from making money to prosecute Jussie Smollett pro bono, at no cost to taxpayers.
Sheila O’Brien Sheila O’Brien was appointed to a judgeship in Cook County in 1991 by the Illinois Supreme Court after asked for the appointment in what was called a “heart-warming letter” to the Illinois Supreme Court. Her husband, Wayne Anderson, had just been appointed to a federal judgeship in Chicago by President George W. Bush. She campaigned for, and won, an Appellate Court seat in 1994 in a campaign chaired by Alderman Ed Burke, a power in the Chicago City Council (since indicted for corruption). She was finance chairman for Chris Kennedy in his 2018 primary campaign for governor against J. B. Pritzker. Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, was endorsed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
In her drive to have Smollett indicted she put in numerous motions before Judge Toomin, most of which he denied. She says that her drive for a special prosecutor in the Smollett case is just “the right thing to do.” She has speculated about supporting a candidate against Kim Foxx or running herself in 2024.
Judge James B. Linn Judge Linn is best known for his harsh attitude toward defendants in his court in all except cases of sex crimes, where he has been so sympathetic to defendants as to be removed from all such cases on motions of the State’s Attorney dating back to Anita Alvarez. Linn was bounced from at least 25 sex cases. The number of felony sex cases randomly assigned to Linn by computer sharply decreased in following years.
Judge Linn denied police torture survivor Kilroy Watkins’ motion for an evidentiary hearing on his claim of torture. Linn also ruled that torture survivor Charles Jackson could be retried for first-degree murder after his case was remanded by the Appellate Court and assigned to him.
Judge Linn banned freelance reporter Bella BAHHS from the Smollett trial courtroom because she told a reporter that she didn’t trust Chicago police. During the Smollett trial Linn repeatedly grimaced and made disapproving faces as the defense presented its case and threatened Smollett’s lawyers, all in front of the jury.
Judge Michael Toomin Judge Toomin, Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Court, only squeaked by the last judicial retention referendum after the Democratic Party refused to endorse him because of his refusal to release juvenile defendants within the 30 day limit for speedy trials in state law, claiming that the COVID pandemic exempted him from the law.
So, who is Jussie Smollett? Jussie Smollett is one of six children born to Joel and Janet (née Harris) Smollett. As a youth Janet Smollett was active in the civil rights movement, and associated with founders of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Jussie’s brother, Jake, and sister, Jurnee, are also prominent in film and television. Angela Davis, one of the founders of the National Alliance, is close to the Smollett family. Janet Smollett was involved in the campaign to free Angela Davis in the early 70s.
Before the verdict, in an “open letter in solidarity with Jussie Smollett and all targeted by police misconduct, Angela and Fania Davis, together with Danny Glover, Robin D. G. Kelly, Gina Belafonte (daughter of Harry Belafionte), Erika Huggins, and seven other prominent artists and activists noted that “At a time when the people of Chicago are demanding community control of the police and when our movement for Black Lives demands that police be defunded and demilitarized, Chicago police and prosecutors continue to expend precious public resources to cover up a hate crime and renew their fabricated case against Jussie Smollett.
“Jussie faces false charges of felony disorderly conduct and is still being forced to fight back against a relentless and vicious smear campaign initiated by the Chicago Police Department and uncritically disseminated by the media.
“We believe Jussie, not the CPD.
“The CPD investigated but refused to make public any of their findings that corroborated Jussie’s account of the attack. For example, a security guard at a Sheraton Hotel near Jussie’s apartment saw two masked men running by, one “a white male in his 20s.”
“A neighbor saw a White man with a rope hanging from his pocket waiting outside Jussie’s apartment. Outrageously, police concealed these eyewitness statements that are in the police reports. In addition, CPD claims that a motion-activated video camera turned off just as the attack on Smollett began. They then concocted a media narrative to spread deception.
“Even some of us who are aware of the history of racism and repression linked to the Chicago Police Department failed to question this narrative. We ask why so many were so quick to believe the CPD.
“The department is legendary for its history of racial terror and cover-up — from the assassination of Fred Hampton in 1969 to the murder of Laquan MacDonald in 2014 and the torture of over one hundred Black men over the last decades.
“In face of felony charges that he staged the attack, Jussie has never wavered in his description of what occurred. The main evidence proffered by CPD in support of the charges is the coerced statement of brothers Abel and OIa Osundairo. Abel had been employed by Jussie as his personal trainer. Ola, known to Chicago police through an unrelated case, had previously faced charges of attempted murder but pled to a lesser charge.
“When investigating Jussie’s case, CPD searched the brothers’ apartment and claimed to turn up a cache of illegal arms and drugs. Police detained the brothers, giving them 48 hours — the maximum police may hold suspects without charge — to confess or implicate Jussie.
“Initially, they refused. But after 47 hours of detention and high-pressure interrogation, the brothers relented. Unsurprisingly, after co-operating and incriminating Jussie, they were released without charges.
“We’ve seen this before. We stand with Jussie and all persons targeted by hate crimes, police misconduct, and the Trump administration. Please join us. Let us vindicate Jussie Smollett and all those subjected to state-sanctioned violence and repression.”