Editorial: Prosecutor owes better answers in Smollett case
It is difficult to remember in recent times anything dirtier coming out of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office than the cleansing of Jussie Smollett's criminal record. Kim Foxx owes the public detailed answers.
Foxx was elected state's attorney in 2016 on the promise to clean up the office after complaints that the previous prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, had dragged her feet and failed to be transparent regarding evidence in the Laquan McDonald case. The handling by Foxx's office of the high-profile Smollett case suggests its leadership has not learned from those painful Alvarez failings.
There is more at stake than simply the question of whether Foxx and her top lieutenants are competent -- as big as that question is. There is more at stake even than the embarrassing stains this case has left on Chicago's reputation -- first from the racist and homophobic violence of Smollett's original claim in January, then from the prosecution's 16-count indictment a month later that Smollett had made it all up. The question isn't even limited to yet another scandalous implication that in Chicago, justice is subservient to prominence, privilege and patronage.
The disturbing question lying under the translucent Smollett "whitewash," to use Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's very appropriate epithet, is what can future victims of bigoted hate crimes and what can anyone who must come up against political clout expect from the justice system in Chicago and Cook County?
Chicago police rightly expressed pride in the resources and commitment they marshaled to find the people who Smollett claimed had attacked him and then to ferret out the apparent holes in his story. Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson rightly expressed disgust at the implications that the alleged false accusation would hold for real future victims of homophobic, racial or sex crimes. That disgust, he suggested in a February news conference announcing Smollett's arrest, demands strong action from the public's institutions to reassure real victims that their claims are taken seriously and to deter anyone whose behaviors might threaten the resolve of authorities or the public to respond to such claims.
The prosecutor's office doesn't question that Smollett did the things they said he did. To the contrary, Joseph Magats, the first assistant state's attorney assigned to be the face of this case after Foxx recused herself because of interactions she had with Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, insists it's all true.
Now, he would have us believe that felony activities once worthy of 16 counts and potentially years in prison can be washed entirely from the record with nothing more than a few hours of unclear and already-served community service in the office of Operation PUSH and the forfeiture of Smollett's $10,000 bond payment.
And he won't tell us why the case fell from so high to so low.
Smollett, for his part, insists that everything he originally claimed is true and that he himself is a victim. If he's telling the truth, his reputation also deserves answers from prosecutors. Yet neither he nor any prosecutors seem interested in further identifying his attackers or, considering that all evidence against him is being expunged, letting the official record show what happened.
This simply is not acceptable.
The Smollett case has become more than just some nasty TMZ celebrity scandal. Its ugly stain has spread beyond the city of Chicago to the domain of, at least, a former first lady of the United States, if not to the reputation of the former president himself.
Worse, it has weakened the public's faith that the Cook County State's Attorney's Office has the integrity, will or plain competence to fulfill the most fundamental responsibilities of the justice system.
Foxx owes the public answers, and she should be held accountable if she doesn't provide them clearly, unequivocally and soon.