The show was canceled before its finale.
That’s how it felt anyway, the news on Tuesday that 16 charges against Jussie Smollett had been dropped by First Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Joseph Magats. One of Smollett’s lawyers, Patricia Brown Holmes, announced that the record would be sealed. We may never get to hear the particulars of why the Chicago Police Department was so secure in its investigation that Superintendent Eddie Johnson announced at a press conference, “This announcement today recognizes that Empire actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.” We may never get our hands on any of the evidence Johnson promised later on Good Morning America. We may never get to hear Smollett justify his not-guilty plea, which he maintained with such determination that he welcomed cameras into the courtroom according to another one of his lawyers, Tina Glandian. (The federal probe reportedly remains open, for what’s worth.)
Just like that, a narrative that was as exhilarating as a wild goose chase, as Smollett shifted from assumed victim to suspect in a racist and homophobic hate crime he reported, became a shaggy dog story. It dropped off at nowhere. The cord was ripped out of the wall so hard, it snapped and whipped back in our faces. In the wake of the foot-dragging over the release of the full Mueller report, it’s been a rough week for us playing along at home.
As decisive as Tuesday’s conclusion was, its essence was as ambiguous as much of what had already taken place in maybe the weirdest (and therefore, in my opinion, most riveting) pop culture story I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. Smollett would be forfeiting the $10,000 bond he paid after his February arrest. His community service (which CBS Chicago says totaled 16 hours over the past weekend) was noted by the prosecutor. He’d walk free. His lawyer Holmes, in a Tuesday morning press conference, denied that he’d forfeited the bond in exchange for the charges being dropped. “There is no deal, the state dismissed the charges,” she said.
At a separate press conference, Superintendent Johnson, referred to the terms as a deal. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who’s been notoriously bad on issues of crime involving Chicago’s police department on its black citizens, deigned to call the decision a “whitewash of justice.”
“Without the completion of these terms, the charges would not have been dropped,” said the prosecutor Magats, which sounds like a deal to me.
Later in the day, in an interview with CBS Chicago, Magats said, “I do not believe he is innocent,” and then confirmed that this meant he believed Smollett was guilty. Magats said he dropped the charges “based on all facts and circumstances, based on his lack of criminal background.”
“I mean, we defer or do alternative prosecutions in the last two years we’ve done it on 5,700 other felony cases,” he continued. He also said that “the office’s number one priority is to combat violent crime and the drivers of violence, I decided to offer this disposition in the case.” Magats denied that Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx had any influence on his decision to drop the charges. Foxx had recused herself from the case early on, after she had, by her account, attempted to persuade Superintendent Johnson to turn over the investigation to the FBI, just days after the alleged January 29 attack on Smollett. This was revealed earlier this month when the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune published exchanges with Foxx and former Michelle Obama aide Tina Tchen, who reached out Feb. 1 on behalf of Smollett and his family who had “concerns about the investigation.”
Magats may think Chicago has better things to do than to offer the public a logical conclusion in this case that has taken up so much of its attention, but if Smollett is as guilty as Magats thinks he is, here is another suggestion that people have license to stretch the truth like taffy and poison us with their homemade sugar. Smollett allegedly did so on a national stage, a potentially immense disservice to a public that largely received with credulity his initial account of being jumped by two homophobic racists. If he’s guilty, he took us all for a ride with a cockamamie plan that I can’t even believe he thought he could pull off without scrutiny (fueled by the fumes of the potentially ensuing Twitter furor).
In her press conference, his lawyer Holmes repeatedly imparted a sense of eagerness for Smollett to be able to move on with his life and career. In his brief statement after Holmes took questions from the press (and gave quite a few, “I don’t know” answers), Smollett said, “I’d like nothing more than just to get back to work and move on with my life.” Good luck with that.
Whatever deal or no deal was struck or not struck, anyone capable of critical thinking can plainly see that information is being withheld. Nothing assures the public of innocence like transparency. The most reasonable theories regarding the dropping of charges and ensuing secrecy suggested that there was some sort of bungling on both sides—Smollett told a story that the Chicago PD felt it could poke holes in.
The Chicago PD’s historical untrustworthiness (here’s a deep dive into Superintendent Johnson’s “long record of justifying police misconduct and shootings”) would prevent this story from being a simple one of good versus bad, clearcut truth versus falsity. But beyond the inevitable cloudy atmosphere, maybe the Chicago PD, in being so vocal about its position and specific allegations within the case, screwed up somewhere, too. At the aforementioned February press conference, Superintendent Johnson said Smollett paid Ola and Abel Osundairo $3,500 to play his attackers, but their own lawyer disagreed with this wording. To Anderson Cooper, she explained, “You have to look at they were friends and the money did include services for training, but you have to look at it within the context of ‘I’m this star and you’re someone who I can help and I would like to pay you for something and oh, can you do me this favor.’ So was it for training? Was it not for training? I think it’s a little bit of both.”
“I’ve been truthful and consistent on every single level since day 1, I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I was accused of,” said Smollett. But by standing by his story, he is asking us to believe that he didn’t recognize the Osundairo brothers as either personal acquaintances of his or as black men the night of the attack—they were wearing ski masks, but the holes on such masks are large enough for parts of the skin around the eyes and mouth to show. The race of his attackers was a key feature of Smollett’s story—in response to the early skepticism, before the story twisted and he was charged, he told Robin Roberts of ABC News, “It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me much more.” (Today that reads like narrative remorse.)
Make no mistake: All sides maintain that the Osundairo brothers perpetrated what was either an attack or some elaborate hate-crime theater. At Tuesday’s press conference, Holmes’s lawyer said so. (The announcement of the dropped charges she and Glandian issued to the press earlier Tuesday morning maintained that “Jussie was attacked by he was unable to identify on January 29.”) Smollett is keen to move on, but without the resolution, he will face questions from every interviewer who knows how to do their job until he gives a reasonable account. This will follow him and haunt his public profile until his narrative makes sense.
I’ve heard our contemporary cultural era described as a “post-truth” time, where public opinion carries more weight than proven fact, based partly on Donald Trump’s ability to get away with lying regularly and profoundly. Tuesday’s decision regarding Smollett’s case is post-post truth. If misinformation is hell, no information is purgatory. This makeshift ending might be some puritan’s version of punishment for not minding our own business, but how could we when Smollett flagged us down and commanded our attention in the first place. In doing so, he made us all spectators, and with Tuesday’s development, he has failed to deliver on his promise of spectacle. From this particular perspective, we have been absolutely cheated, scammed out of the scam.