After Chicago prosecutors abruptly dropped all criminal charges related to the false police report former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett allegedly filed regarding what Smollett said was a hate crime carried out against him, the case file was sealed.
For a while, it appeared that Smollett would simply walk away from the incident without anyone else knowing exactly what had transpired.
That no longer appears to be the case, however, as Cook County Circuit Court Judge Steven G. Watkins ordered Thursday that Smollett’s file be unsealed and the details of his case made available to the public, according to NBC News.
By now, virtually everyone knows the timeline of public events in Smollett’s case.
In January, the actor, who is gay and black, reported an alleged homophobic and racially motivated assault against him.
Chicago police engaged in an extensive hate crime investigation throughout much of February, but soon found that the details of his story weren’t quite adding up.
Police eventually determined Smollett and two associates had staged the alleged assault, and in March, Smollett was hit with 16 felony counts after he allegedly lied to police.
Just weeks later, prosecutors unexpectedly announced that all charges had been dropped.
His case file had been sealed and Smollett was a free man, though he did forfeit his $10,000 bond.
A number of media outlets filed a lawsuit demanding the records be unsealed.
They argued the act of having the records sealed “violates the public’s right of access to court records and proceedings,” and that “the matter has been widely publicized and the defendant and his attorneys have appeared on national television discussing the case,” according to Watkins’ Thursday order.
Smollett’s attorneys had argued their client enjoyed a right to privacy, suggesting the media had plenty of time to review the contents of the case file prior to it being sealed, NBC reported.
“To be sure, it is easily conceivable that a defendant whose case was dismissed would wish to maintain his sense of privacy, even if, perhaps especially if, the media covered the case,” Watkins wrote in his ruling. “However, that isn’t that case.”
“While the court appreciates that the defendant was in the public eye before the events that precipitated this case, it was not necessary for him to address this so publicly and to such an extent. By doing so, the court cannot credit his privacy interest as good cause to keep the case records sealed,” Watkins added.
“These are not the actions of a person seeking to maintain his privacy or simply to be let alone,” Watkins wrote, referring to the multiple media appearances and interviews given by Smollett and his attorneys, according to the Chicago Tribune, which was one of the outlets represented in the suit.
At another point in the 10-page decision, Watkins wrote in reference to Smollett’s search for publicity as opposed to his claim of wanting privacy: “[Smollett] voluntarily stood in front of cameras from numerous news organizations in the courthouse lobby and spoke about the case.”
Natalie Spears, an attorney for the Tribune who represented the various media outlets in the suit, said of the judge’s ruling: “This is about transparency and trust in the system, and we believe the public has a right to know what their government did here and why.”
It remains unclear how long it will take the clerk’s office at the Cook County Circuit Court to comply with Watkins’ order, in part because it’s not clear if Smollett’s attorneys will appeal the decision or not.
However, it’s worth noting in light of this decision that there are likely other files related to Smollett that could soon be publicly released as well, including those held by the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County State’s Attorney office.
Both agencies had previously resisted separate requests to release their own records on Smollett, citing the fact that his court file had been ordered sealed, albeit noting that the records might eventually be released if that was no longer the case.
In all likelihood, the information contained in the sealed files will prove disastrously embarrassing for the likes of Smollett and others associated with the case, specifically State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who initially recused herself from the case only to reinsert herself at the end when the charges were dropped.
Foxx is facing problems of her own with regard to the Smollett case, which most likely won’t be helped one bit by the unsealing of his case file.
She has faced demands to resign, as well as an state inspector general review of how her office handled the case, not to mention the possibility of a state-appointed special prosecutor who could investigate the details surrounding the inexplicable dropping of all charges.
This is undoubtedly a devastating blow for Smollett and those who support him, and an encouraging step toward eventually getting to the bottom of what really happened.
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