On March 26, one of 2019’s most confounding news stories took another abrupt and dramatic turn when the Cook County State Attorney’s office in Chicago announced that all charges against Fox Network’s “Empire” (2015–) actor Jussie Smollett would be dropped. In a statement, the office declared, “After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollet’s [sic] volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the city of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case.”
The dismissal of charges marked a nearly diametric turnaround from the trajectory of the case up to that point. Smollett initially reported in late January that two men had attacked him in the city’s Streeterville area, shouting racist and homophobic slurs and placing a noose around his neck. However, speculation that the attack had been staged surfaced in the days following the alleged event. Initially, Chicago police denied reports Smollett was a suspect in the case.
However, following a raid on the home of two persons of interest, who emerged as two brothers of Nigerian origin whom Smollett previously knew, the focus of the investigation began to shift. Widespread conjecture about the case came to a head on Feb. 20, when prosecutors charged Smollett on a felony count of disorderly conduct. Smollett turned himself in early the next morning.
In the wake of Smollett’s arrest, “Empire” announced that Smollett’s character on the show, Jamal Lyon, would be written out of the final two episodes of the show’s fifth season, which had been filming in Chicago at the time of the alleged attack. According to some rumors, Smollett, dissatisfied with his salary on the show, had staged the attack in a coup for a pay raise.
Following Smollett’s release on bond, a grand jury indicted the actor on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report on March 8. The charges carried a maximum sentence of 64 years in prison, and legal experts predicted he would seek a plea deal to avoid prison time.
Six days later, however, Smollett pleaded not guilty to all charges. His attorneys attacked the handling of the case by both the State Attorney’s office and the media, calling the 16-count indictment “overkill” and alleging that investigators had tampered with Smollett’s medical records.
The pendulum of the case shifted once again with the announcement that all charges had been dropped, sparking a media firestorm. Smollett’s lawyers claimed victory in the case, stating that the actor’s record had been “wiped clean.” Chicago officials maintained that Smollett had not been exonerated, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel calling the case “a whitewash of justice.” However, legal experts have suggested that the saga is far from over for Smollett, noting that the city would likely begin civil proceedings and that future criminal charges are not out of the question. Smollett’s team has countered with their own threats of legal action.
Following the dismissal of charges, several outlets reported that the FBI would begin investigating the case. Donald Trump has also announced this with a tweet of his own. While it is unclear whether Smollett will return to “Empire,” Fox announced that they were “gratified” at the development.