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Column:: Thanks to Kim Foxx, the Jussie Smollett story will not die

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx testifies to support legalization of recreational marijuana at
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, shown May 30, 2019, has kept the Jussie Smollett case in the news.
(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

Starting March 27, the day after the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx abruptly and mysteriously dropped charges against TV actor Jussie Smollett, more than 180 columns, editorials and stories touching on the case have appeared in the Tribune, Sun-Times and Daily Herald.

That’s about 175 more appearances in print than readers would have seen if prosecutors had simply required Smollett to admit wrongdoing in exchange for leniency on felony charges that he staged a hate crime against himself by hiring two acquaintances to pretend to attack him Jan. 29 while yelling racist, homophobic slurs and a pro-Trump slogan.

Instead, of course, controversy flared when Smollett rushed to the microphones in the courthouse lobby to proclaim his innocence. Public officials and pundits led the general call for an explanation from prosecutors.

If the case was strong that Smollett lied to police and prompted the expenditure of significant investigatory resources, as Foxx said initially, why did she let him walk without so much as a “my bad”?

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And if the case had weaknesses, as Foxx later hinted, what were those weaknesses?

Simple questions, really. And Foxx’s failure to answer them has prolonged this story in numerous ways, prompting more than 2,000 media mentions worldwide after March 27, according to the Nexis database.

In the wake of the controversy and anger, the city filed a civil suit against Smollett to recover the costs of investigating his alleged hoax. Foxx herself has asked the Cook County inspector general to look into how her office handled the case. And former state appellate Judge Sheila O’Brien is in court doggedly pushing for a special prosecutor to take over.

Foxx’s document dump Friday evening of more than 2,000 pages of related emails and text messages, an apparent belated effort at damage control, has only made things worse.

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These internal documents showed that Foxx didn’t “want to waste any capital on a celebrity case” that might be a “distraction,” and stepped back from direct oversight of the case because of rumors that she was related to Smollett.

They showed that prosecutors under Foxx were negotiating with Smollett’s lawyers about the language to be used in court when charges were dropped so as not to leave the impression that the resolution of the case was a “deal between attorneys, which would indicate guilt,” as Risa Lanier, chief of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau wrote.

Lanier was also mentioned in a document dump Thursday from the Chicago Police Department.

A detectives’ report in that trove read that, “Once Smollett was indicted by the Grand Jury on February 28, (the Chicago Police Department) was informed by the (Cook County state’s attorney’s office) that they could no longer investigate the crime ... Lanier informed detectives that she felt the case would be settled with Smollett paying the city of Chicago $10,000 in restitution and doing community service.”

Smollett did indeed forfeit his cash bond of $10,000 — though his lawyers said it wasn’t a fine but a contribution by a “dedicated citizen” — and he spent two days volunteering at Rainbow/PUSH headquarters in what was later described as community service.

Imagine that. A month before the stunning announcement in court that caught the mayor, the police chief and everyone in the media by surprise, police reports show a top Foxx deputy predicted the outcome while calling a halt to further investigation in the case.

“The public’s trust is paramount to our work,” said Foxx in a statement released with the documents Friday. “It is my sincere hope that this transparency and the ongoing investigation of the Cook County independent inspector general will provide guidance and lessons on how to serve you better. I am sorry that, despite the best intentions, our efforts were less than what was required of the moment.”

Sorry is a good start. But when questions are still being raised faster than she’s answering them more than two months after this PR pratfall, she hasn’t earned the right to use the word “transparency” or to ask for the public’s trust.

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Her failure to sit down with the media and answer every question honestly and at length and to wait instead for internal investigations to conclude has prolonged and thus deepened the controversy over a story that should now be history, not a current event.

Some of you are sick of this story, I know. It was at worst a minor incident in a city plagued by deadly violence. We have so many bigger problems than a Hollywood star thumbing his nose at our Police Department.

But don’t blame the media. Foxx is the one keeping this story alive.

ericzorn@gmail.com

Twitter @EricZorn


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