Smollett and the Scourge of Celebrity Justice

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the dropping of charges against Jussie Smollett. The decision to give Smollett community service and an insulting $10,000 fine has outraged people around the world. Indeed, the City estimates that it spent $130,000 in pursuing the hoax. The costs belie the claim of the Chicago District Attorney that it was merely trying to save badly needed resources. Those resources were already spent in finding the hoax and securing 16 charges from a grand jury. The result is a travesty of justice that shocks the conscience.

Here is the column:

The sudden dismissal of all charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett unleashed a torrent of outrage. Even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel denounced the decision by the Cook County State’s Attorney Office as a “whitewash of justice.”

There is, however, a more accurate term: “celebrity justice.”

On trials ranging from O.J. Simpson to Michael Jackson to Martha Stewart, I have written on the notion of celebrity justice. Indeed, the objection to “celebrity justice” has been heard in the United States for decades, as people question if the law applies as equally to the rich and famous as it does to average citizens.

The answer is that, no, it does not. In most cases, celebrities actually receive harsher treatment and fewer benefits from the criminal justice system.

Yet, there is no other explanation for the absurd decision to drop all charges in the Smollett case. Smollett sent Chicago and the nation into pandemonium over his claim that two men jumped him on a public street, yelling racist and homophobic insults as well as “This is MAGA country!” The idea that Trump supporters beat a gay African American actor and then tied a rope around his neck, unleashed a torrent of condemnation and protest. Smollett appeared in public in apparent brave defiance of those who abused him.

Later, after a citywide search by Chicago police, Smollett’s story began to unravel. He was uncooperative with police and, soon, two brothers were found to have purchased the rope and other key items from a nearby store. They implicated Smollett in the hoax, and a grand jury handed down 16 charges against him.

Smollett seemed destined for a well-deserved prison stint — until the sudden decision to drop all charges for a token $10,000 fine and community service. Smollett promptly walked out of court and proclaimed he was innocent and the attack did occur.

So, there is videotape of Smollett’s co-conspirators buying the materials used for the hoax. There are two witnesses who reportedly implicated him. There is forensic and material evidence undermining his account. The only thing missing was a confession.

The decision to dismiss was announced by Joe Magats, Cook County’s first assistant state’s attorney, who explained that the county stood by the charges and the allegations of a hoax. He said prosecutors simply decided to prioritize “violent crime, gun crime and the drivers of violence” and that “I don’t see Jussie Smollett as a threat to public safety.” The explanation was as forced as it was false.

First, Cook County presumably has not decided to confine prosecutions to violent crimes, or everything from blackmail to bank fraud to tax evasion would be effectively immunized.

Second, this was not just any nonviolent offense. Smollett sent a city into crisis and caused the Chicago Police Department to direct huge resources into the search for racist, homophobic Trump supporters terrorizing innocent citizens. Magats said that the office did not want to use limited resources to go after nonviolent crime, but it already spent those resources in uncovering the hoax and securing 16 charges. All that remained was what looked like a perfunctory trial.

Third, Smollett not only used the hoax to try to improve his professional position, but he maintained his innocence after walking free, and his associates attacked his accusers.

Finally, and most importantly, this was framed as a hate crime. In Chicago, committing crimes from disorderly conduct to harassment “by reason of … race [or] … sexual orientation of an individual or group of individuals” is a hate crime. Smollett triggered fear of racist, homophobic attacks through a premeditated, coordinated hoax. His motivation was to use race and sexual orientation to commit a fraud on the city.

The view of the Cook County District Attorney’s office appears to be that if you use race or sexual orientation to terrorize or abuse an individual, you will face serious jail time, but if you fake the same attack to use race or sexual orientation to terrorize or abuse a city, you are forgiven with a small fine.

While Smollett can claim that his was not a hate crime because he did not specifically target a victim, his actions had the same impact on the city.

Magats could claim he was applying blind — not celebrity — justice by securing a plea as in any other false-report case. However, most false reports are not calculated to inflame unrest over racist or homosexual intolerance. Most do not involve an international outcry and an unrepentant defendant. Hopefully, the prosecutors at least scored an autograph, because they walked away with little else.

As someone who has long questioned the mantra of “celebrity justice,” this month is unsettling not only because of the Smollett decision but because of the ongoing controversy surrounding the treatment of sexual abuser Jeffrey Epstein.

Epstein was given a ridiculously light plea deal for sexual abuse of underaged girls. The deal came as various powerful figures, including Bill Clinton, were named as travelers on Epstein’s infamous “Lolita Express” flights to his private estate on the Caribbean island of Little Saint James with young girls who allegedly were used as prostitutes. Epstein had the foresight to implicate powerful men in his activities and, when facing a public trial, then U.S. Attorney (and now Labor Secretary) Alexander Acosta cut him an absurd deal to avoid serious jail time and seal the record. The deal was recently declared unlawful — but Epstein avoided a long sentence, his friends avoided an embarrassing trial, and Acosta was later given a cabinet position.

Epstein received special treatment, and his victims were not only denied knowledge of the deal cut with Acosta but denied any semblance of justice.

Celebrity justice is often the ill-informed explanation of acquittals of famous persons. The first “Trial of the Century” in 1921 of film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, for allegedly raping and killing showgirl Virginia Rappe, resulted in acquittal, as did cases against stars like Michael Jackson and Robert Blake. However, these cases had critical flaws — and other celebrities, such as Martha Stewart, were convicted on cases that were overcharged.

Prosecutors often relish the opportunity to try a celebrity, and their concerns about “celebrity justice” criticism push them toward overcharging cases. Some cases, however, are distorted by the pull of influence and power before trial. That was the case with Epstein, which produced a grotesque result; he used backchannels to secure a secret deal with Acosta — a deal recently declared by a federal judge to have violated federal law.

Smollett may also have turned to such backchannel efforts. News reports have alleged that Michele Obama’s former chief of staff, Tina Tchen, and another Smollett associate contacted Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to seek her intervention in the case soon after the scandal broke. Foxx is accused of keeping the Smollett team informed of developments, and she later had to recuse herself. That left the matter to her subordinate, Magats, who cut a deal for Smollett that drew a rare public rebuke from the mayor and the Chicago Police Department — as well as international outcry.

Smollett may have benefitted from a simple failure of prosecutorial judgment or a raw example of celebrity justice. Like the Epstein case, it is not clear if the problem was an absence of blind justice or of equal justice. What is clear, however, is that this represents a travesty of justice.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

105 thoughts on “Smollett and the Scourge of Celebrity Justice”


    We’ve read all about Jesse Smollet and his malicious deceptions. But we’ve read very little about the Nigerian brothers who would be essential witnesses in a Smollett trial. Those brothers, for the record, were the actual parties who purchased rope and bleach, then used those items in the staged attack.

    Are those brothers in the country legally? That was never clear in the coverage I’ve seen. People should know that Nigerians have a decades-long reputation for hop-scotching around America (and western Europe) engaging in various frauds.

    Therefore I wonder if the Illinois State Attorney’s office has reservations about getting those Nigerian brothers to court as cooperative witnesses. There could be a glitch with them. That would well-explain why the State Attorney has no desire to pursue Smollet.

    Kurtz, any insights? You might know someone at the State Attorney’s office.

    1. Not to be offensive but, do you play tennis P. Hill?

      Personal tennis instructor for Michelle Obama, her daughters charged in bribery scheme

      A tennis coach who worked with the family of former President Barack Obama was among the 50 people charged in a college admissions scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed coaches and others to get their children accepted to some of the top schools in the U.S.

      Ernst allegedly accepted nearly $3 million in bribes

    2. In a joint statement issued to CNN affiliate WBBM, the men said: “We are not racist. We are not homophobic, and we are not anti-Trump. We were born and raised in Chicago and are American citizens.”

    3. P Hill – did you get contacted by His Royal Highness the Prince of Nigeria to do a wire transfer so that he could repay you handsomely? I have got to try to find an article where someone got back at those phone and email scammers.

  2. There’s no privilege like show privilege like no privilege I know
    Everything about it is appalling, everything that no shame will allow
    Nowhere could you get that happy feeling when you are stealing (and I mean stealing) that extra bow
    There’s no people like show people, they smile since they are so low
    Even with a turkey that you know will fold, you may be stranded out in the cold
    Still you wouldn’t change it for a sack of gold (or not), let’s go on with the show
    The body-builder, the fake racist, the lawyer, the activist
    Are secretly unhappy men because
    The body-builder, the fake racist, the lawyer, the activist
    Get paid for what they do but no applause.
    They’d gladly bid their dreary jobs goodbye for anything theatrical and why?
    There’s no privilege like show privilege and I tell you it’s so

    1. Mespo, your post brings back memories of the Dick Clark & Ed McMahon PCH Sweepstakes Commercial.

        1. mespo…….Love this! You can never have too many Mermans! To me, the most shocking thing about her was that she was Episcopalian! There went that stereotype…..LOL
          Favorite Ethel story: Ethel created the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy on Broadway, 1959.
          When talk of a film version started, Ethel assumed she would be cast as Mama Rose.
          But Rosalind Russell wanted that part, and Roz’s husband was a big producer, so he got her the lead as Mama Rose in the film.
          Ethel was livid…..and from that point on, referred to Fred Brisson, Roz’s producer husband, as ” The Lizard of Roz”…..

          1. Great story. That’s too bad about the part. Losing a big part must be one of those thorns that plague actors forever.

    2. I LOVE this. Well done! I’m picturing you raising your arms in that characteristic grand gesture, especially at the end.

  3. The AG & prosecutor office colluded with the perpetrator including Michele Obama’s former chief of staff, Tina Tchen, and another Smollett associate who contacted Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to seek her intervention. The FBI & DOJ are investigating.

    1. OPERATION GREYLORD chicago judges lawyers racketeering and corrupt disposition of cases in Crook county!

    2. Obama is very busy behind the scenes:

      “POTUS (Obama) wants to know everything we’re doing.”

      – Lisa Page to Peter Strzok

      “It’s a real profile in courage, since she (Obama AG Lynch) knows no charges will be brought,”

      – Lisa Page to Peter Strzok

      “…the White House is running this.”

      – Peter Strzok to Lisa Page

      “Went well, best we could have expected. Other than [REDACTED] quote, ‘the White House is running this.’,” Strzok wrote to Page on Aug. 5, 2016. “My answer, ‘well, maybe for you they are.’”

      Page replied: “Yeah, whatever (re WH comment). We’ve got emails that say otherwise.”

  4. The backlash against Kimm Foxx and Smollett are going to prevail when all is said and done. The fact that the State Attorney did not negotiate for any guilty plea is very irregular, as well as sealing the case file. Here’s hoping the FBI finds a quid pro quo, and pursues charges on the terrorist letter sent via the US mail.

    Here we are again where Americans are not seeing the rule of law applied blindly, but bending to VIP influence. Getting Cosby convicted and behind bars was too slow and difficult a process, and the Jeffrey Epstein NPA follows the same pattern. Acosta got away with a violation of the federal Victims Rights Act, and he and his associates lied to the judge and the victims with impunity. And, no indictment of Acosta for these now obvious process crimes?

    Our law enforcement system lacks due oversight. When is the last time you heard of a prosecutor being seriously punished for willful misconduct? Most young lawyers go into public law with a sense of idealism and rectitude, but they see patterns of misconduct and shortcuts go unpunished — they see that there’s no accountability system for the D.A. defrauding the Court.

  5. It’s unusual for a Black man, celebrity or not, to get such a deal that is usually reserved for rich white guys. If there is no prosecution it looks like his punishment will be the ruining of his reputation.

    JT again mentions Epstein’s sweet deal and mentions one former president but neglects to mention the current one. Trump not only took the Lolita express, he attended Epstein’s “parties” at his Manhattan home and his home near Mar a Lago.

    1. bettykathy:

      “It’s unusual for a Black man, celebrity or not, to get such a deal that is usually reserved for rich white guys.”


      Racist much? Where’s your data if it’s not?

    2. bettykath I wonder if you could provide a link to the information of Trump riding on the Lolita Express to the Island. Several publications including
      Politico says Trump was never identified as being on the Lolita Express.

      1. Gabby,
        I don’t think there were any documented cases (flight logs, passenger lists) of Trump being on the Lolita express.
        I spent a bit of time looking for that documentation to see if there was any truth to repeated claims that Trump did fly on that plane.
        By contrast, there was documemtation showing about 2 dozen instances of documenting Bill Clinton’s flights on the plane.
        I think Epstein’s brother claimed that he knew of one trip by Trump on the plane, but I didn’t see any records that confirmed that.

    3. Can we get rid of wholly unconstitutional “Affirmative Action Privilege” and “Generational Welfare” now and get back to freedom, wherein merit prevails? Whatever will you do?

  6. “He said prosecutors simply decided to prioritize “violent crime, gun crime and the drivers of violence” ”

    So I guess it is the timing of the crime, not the crime itself that matters.

    1. How much time would it have taken for the State to insist on a guilty plea to one charge, while dropping the other 15? Everyone knows a lame excuse when they see it.

  7. Jussie is butt buddy of David Brock.

    ask Brock’s paid trolls on here…if you can find them on this thread

    Pathetic Left wing radicals

  8. Look at it this way, It only cost Chicago $130,000 less the ten grand he ceded that’s a drop in the bucket when your already a billion or so in the red

  9. I don’t think it’s fair to the late Mr. Arbuckle to lump him in with Jackson and Blake. Arbuckle was ruined financially and professionally, and there’s every reason to believe he did nothing wrong.

  10. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? He was not found guilty in a court of law. We used to have this system or now does the public just get to try everyone in the court of public opinion?

    1. They have security cam tapes of the Nigerians he hired buying the ski masks.

    2. yeah, put him in there right next to O.J., they’re both innocent, then take your head out of the sand and wakeup

  11. Here is the result of 50 years of lies by the Democratic Party – lies telling blacks that their mostly low position in life is due to White Privilege, or Institutional Racism, and not their black cow ghetto mommy having 3 or 4 kids by 3 or 4 baby daddies while holding down a part time job at Church’s Fried Chicken. And not due to blacks themselves clowning their way thru school. Now, a majority of blacks have a victim mentality, and even when they are clearly not victims, like Smollett, they just can’t stop playing the game. But, on the bright side, White Democrats have made a fortune off buying votes from them!

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  12. Of all the celebrity justice cases in which the celebrity “won” Smollett lacks any plausible reason for the outcome. One could argue that the prosecution in O.J.’s case was incompetent (they were) or that the Blake and Epstein cases were missing critical witnesses, and so the celebrity got off, but the Smollett police files as well as the comments of the prosecutors lead to only one reasonable conclusion which is that the prosecutors were fundamentally corrupt. They were willing to abandon their oaths of office to give really special treatment to someone because of his connections. And, the fact that those connections were willing to intervene to protect their friend from the consequences of such despicable racially charged conduct gives the lie to their sanctimonious posturing on race relations.

  13. Jussie had a judge like Trump/Bill C’s friend Epstein had that Trump promoted.

  14. Is it not possible for this deal to be reversed? Can a judge or someone not declare this to of been improper, and put Smollett back under charges?

    1. The prosecutor’s can retry him if they chose. The case was resolved via Nolle prosequi which just means they decided not to prosecute and he can still be tried in the future as double jeopardy does not apply.

    2. The case was resolved via Nolle prosequi which just means they decided not to prosecute and he can still be tried in the future as double jeopardy does not apply.

  15. It is time to get this dork out of the news. Perhaps someone will shoot him while he is hibernating.

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