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Prosecutors Drop Charges Against Actor Jussie Smollett, Prompting Outrage From Police

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you've peeked at cable news today, you might have gotten whiplash from the latest twist in an already strange case. Prosecutors in Chicago dropped all charges against TV actor Jussie Smollett. Smollett, who is black and gay, had been accused of orchestrating a hate crime on himself. He was indicted last month for filing a false police report to that effect. WBEZ's Miles Bryan joins us now from Chicago.

And Miles, let's just start with the prosecutors. Did anyone have any sense that it would turn out this way?

MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: No. We did not see this coming. So in the last major update to this case, the Cook County prosecutors, they laid out this detailed roadmap of evidence that they said they planned to use to show that Smollett staged a hate crime with the help of two brothers he knew as part of a ploy to increase his salary on the show "Empire." But this morning, the media got a mysterious emergency message from Smollett's PR person, and so we all raced over to the courthouse to find out that the prosecutors were dropping all charges. Smollett's legal team said that this was a full exoneration. He spoke to the press.

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JUSSIE SMOLLETT: 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 have been accused of.

CORNISH: So in that press conference, he's maintaining his innocence. But does that actually mean prosecutors are saying that they were wrong to bring charges against him in the first place?

BRYAN: No, definitely not, which is a bit confusing. So the Cook County prosecutors say they stand behind the police's investigation into the case and their decision to charge him. They say they struck a deal with Smollett called an alternative prosecution. It's something they do for nonviolent cases with people who don't have a criminal history. They say Smollett had to do some community service and will donate his $10,000 bond to the city. Here's Cook County First Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Magats explaining.

JOSEPH MAGATS: I mean, I think it's being read as some type of vindication or statement that there was something wrong with the police investigation in this case. That is categorically not true.

BRYAN: But you know, Audie, this has been a really high-profile case. And that raises some questions about this decision. We talked to one former county prosecutor who said that this is not the normal way to deal with a case as serious as this one.

CORNISH: And the Chicago Police were very forceful - right? - in denouncing what they said that Smollett did. So how did they react to today's news?

BRYAN: Yeah. You know, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, he went on national TV to talk about this. I mean, there were a bunch of press conferences, you might remember. And Johnson and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded to the charges being dropped this morning, and they were livid. And it's worth noting here that the state's attorney's office is separate from police. Johnson said they found out about it at the same time we, the media, did. Mayor Rahm Emanuel seemingly took a shot at the state's attorney's office for this decision.

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RAHM EMANUEL: This is, without a doubt, a whitewash of justice and sends a clear message that if you're in a position of influence and power, you'll get treated one way; other people will be treated another way. There is no accountability, then, in the system.

BRYAN: Yeah. So you know, the mayor and Superintendent Johnson, they were really insistent that Smollett is guilty, that he was indicted by a grand jury. But he will no longer be facing any county criminal charges. But as of last month, the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was also looking into Jussie Smollett for allegedly faking a threatening letter to himself. And I called the Chicago FBI this afternoon, and they very much declined to comment.

CORNISH: That's Miles Bryan. He's a reporter with member station WBEZ. Thank you for talking with us.

BRYAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.