By Rosetta Miller-Perry
A basic tenet of the criminal justice system is the punishment fits the crime. But in the case of actor Jussie Smollett, sentenced to 150 days in jail and 30 months probation over an alleged faked 2019 racial attack, Smollett got a sentence far out of proportion to the crime he’s supposedly committed.
For someone without a criminal record getting sentenced on a non-violent first offense and still maintaining his innocence, a far more reasonable sentence could and should have been given. A suspended sentence with probation, or even a month in jail and probation seems much fairer than what this judge gave.
Cook County Judge James Linn said Smollett would begin his time behind bars immediately, and also ordered him to pay $120,106 in restitution and $25,000 in fines. “I believe that you did damage to real hate crimes — to hate crime victims,” Linn told Smollett before announcing his sentence. The judge acknowledged that he could not say “for sure how much damage there was,” but he said he hoped that other victims would not be dissuaded from coming forward and that authorities would not be more skeptical of victims who are willing to report such crimes.
Linn rejected the defense’s request for a new trial after arguments were made by his lawyers at the lengthy sentencing hearing. Before rendering his verdict, Smollett’s defense team read letters of support for the star from Black Lives Matter, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Samuel L. Jackson, and Rev. Jesse Jackson on behalf of the Rainbow/Push Coalition.
They all stood up for his character and urged the judge not to give Smollett jail time. The actor’s older brother also spoke to the judge in the hearing, and so did his 92-year-old grandmother. Another lawyer for the former “Empire” star read a letter from actress and family friend Alfre Woodard, and still another from NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson.
It’s quite instructive that Chicago’s top prosecutor, state’s attorney Kim Foxx, said in the Chicago Sun Times that the court proceedings at Smollett’s sentencing amounted to “mob justice” and a politically motivated “kangaroo prosecution.” This coming from a prosecutor, not a defense attorney.
Foxx defended her decision in Smollett’s original charges, and claimed his prosecution could ultimately serve as “a deterrent to the next generation of prosecutors eager to fight for critical reforms.” “It pains me deeply to say that, in this particular case, our justice system failed,” Foxx wrote.
A big part of why this judge sentenced Smollett so harshly is because he wanted to avoid the public criticism launched at Foxx, who wasn’t interested in acting as if Smollett was a serial killer, or someone for whom the hate crimes laws were really constructed to punish. Just in case anyone has forgotten, most of the people convicted of hate crimes are like the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, or the thugs attacking Asian Americans.
There’s also a lot more to the Smollett case than is being reported in some places, and it goes beyond Smollett’s conviction. There’s a campaign being conducted against Kim Foxx because she didn’t want to turn Smollett into another incarcerated Black man. She has been the target of the Chicago Sun-Times ever since she conducted the original investigation and decided to drop all the charges against him. That didn’t sit well with the Sun-Times, and they began a relentless campaign of personal invective against Foxx, even hinting at possible corruption as well as incompetence.
The Sun-Times was joined in this campaign by former Appellate Court Justice Shelia O’Brien, whose petition for a special prosecutor helped lead to special prosecutor Dan Webb’s appointment, and the subsequent proceedings that ended in Smollett’s conviction. She’s now beating the drums calling for Foxx’s resignation. Foxx also might face disciplinary proceedings from the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.
But putting Smollett behind bars wasn’t enough for either Webb or the Sun-Times. While the newspaper allowed Foxx to do an editorial blasting the Smollett verdict, they are heavily touting a 60-page report from Webb that attacks Foxx in multiple areas. Webb’s report claims Foxx and her top assistants repeatedly made procedural and ethical missteps and tried to mislead the public. There are also allegations of “substantial abuse of discretion,” “breached its obligations of honesty” and “major failure of the operations of the [state’s attorney’s office].”
Now a bad situation is getting worse, with reports of Smollett’s life being in danger. His attorneys filed a document March 11 arguing that “vicious threats” against him on social media indicate the violence that he “may experience during incarceration.” However, they say that, if Smollett is put into what equates to solitary confinement, that could cause “extraordinary damage” to his mental health: “Any custodial setting poses a safety and health danger” to his life. They’re asking the court to either stay his sentence or grant him bond.
The motion also cites a medical doctor’s opinion that Smollett has a compromised immune system and is at “serious health risk” if he contracts COVID-19 behind bars. Meanwhile, his family has alleged that he is being improperly held in the “psych ward” at the facility. They reiterated Monday in the update from Smollett’s legal team that “Jussie is strong and would never hurt himself.”
This is a horrible situation created by judicial mishandling and excessive sentencing. Smollett maintains his innocence, but whether that’s ultimately proved, it is inescapable that he’s being overly punished by a judge afraid of public criticism and is the victim of a campaign conducted by a newspaper and former judge whose real target is a Black woman state prosecutor. Smollett is only the pawn in their larger game, but his life has been ruined in the process.
The Cook’s County Sheriff’s Office previously clarified that Smollett was being held in “protective custody status,” which means that he has his own cell which is monitored by cameras inside and by an officer stationed outside. “As with all detained persons, Mr. Smollett is entitled to have substantial time out of his cell in the common areas on the tier where he is housed, where he is able to use the telephone, watch television, and interact with staff,” a spokesperson said. “During such times out of cell, other detainees will not be present in the common areas. These protocols are routinely used for individuals ordered into protective custody who may potentially be at risk of harm due to the nature of their charges, their profession, or their noteworthy status.”
They also disclosed that Jussie gave the phone number of an emergency contact, one of his siblings, when he began his incarceration Thursday, and that the owner of that number had received “threatening, harassing, racist and homophobic” calls in the days since.
Smollett, who had waived his right to comment before the verdict, announced he was “not suicidal” and “innocent” after the sentencing. He repeatedly stated that he is “not suicidal,” insisting that if anything happens to him in jail, that he would never take his own life.