A judge in Chicago on Thursday unsealed Jussie Smollett’s court records after media organizations asked that documents related to the “Empire” actor’s arrest be made publicly accessible.
The decision to unseal the case could allow public access to documents from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office that could shed light on why the office suddenly dropped all charges against Mr. Smollett in March.
Mr. Smollett was accused of staging a racist and homophobic assault against himself. After the charges were dropped, the court approved a request by Mr. Smollett’s lawyer to seal the case; several news organizations, including The New York Times, asked the judge to reverse that decision, citing a need for more transparency in why local prosecutors suddenly decided to withdraw charges.
[Read a timeline of events in the Jussie Smollett case.]
Mr. Smollett’s case captivated the American public earlier this year with one baffling twist after another. What started as mass outrage over a celebrity being targeted based on his race and sexual orientation turned into indignation at Mr. Smollett after the police concluded that he planned the attack himself in an effort to gain publicity. Mr. Smollett has maintained his innocence.
The records were shielded from the public eye based on an Illinois law that allows a defendant’s court file to be sealed if charges against them were dropped or they were acquitted. The law is partly meant to ensure that innocent defendants are not rejected from potential job opportunities because of an arrest record.
In explaining his ruling, Judge Steven G. Watkins of the Circuit Court of Cook County wrote that Mr. Smollett’s request for privacy was not a good enough reason to keep the records sealed, considering that Mr. Smollett willingly spoke about the situation in detail on national television and in other venues.
“After the March 26 dismissal, he voluntarily stood in front of cameras from numerous news organizations in the courthouse lobby and spoke about the case,” Judge Watkins wrote. “These are not the actions of a person seeking to maintain his privacy or simply be let alone.”
In a hearing last week, the lawyer representing media organizations, Natalie Spears, argued that the intention behind the Illinois law did not apply to Mr. Smollett’s case because it was so widely covered in the mainstream media.
After the charges were dropped, Fox announced that the sixth season of “Empire” would be its last. Fox executives declined to say whether Mr. Smollett’s case had anything to do with the decision. They said there were “no plans” for Mr. Smollett to come back, even as they negotiated an extension on his option, leaving the door open for a return later in the season.
A lawyer for Mr. Smollett, Brian Watson, argued at last week’s court hearing that the media had plenty of access to Mr. Smollett’s case and that unsealing it would violate Mr. Smollett’s rights. Mr. Watson said the media’s position that intense public attention to the case precluded Mr. Smollett’s right to privacy was self-fulfilling; the media had full control over whether it gave a defendant that attention. Speaking outside the courtroom on Thursday, Mr. Watson said that he was unsure whether he will appeal the judge’s decision and that he had to speak with Mr. Smollett before making any next steps.
In his order, Judge Watkins wrote that Mr. Watson’s argument had “some appeal” and that there was a “certain irony” in news organizations seeking access to sealed documents based on the fact that Mr. Smollett is different than the typical criminal defendant, while actively treating him that way. But, he wrote, Mr. Smollett also chose to bring publicity to his own case and so should not be allowed the privacy of a sealed case file.
Cathy McNeil Stein, the lawyer representing the state, said outside the courtroom on Thursday that the state’s attorney’s office planned to review its files and turn over documents that were previously sealed. It was unclear how quickly that would happen.
Kim Foxx, the Cook County state’s attorney, wrote in a column in The Chicago Tribune that she wanted records in Mr. Smollett’s case to be made public. Ms. Foxx had recused herself from the Smollett case because she had contact with a member of Mr. Smollett’s family before he was considered a suspect. A lawyer representing the state did not take a position on the issue in court.
Mr. Smollett, who is black and gay, reported to police in January that two men assaulted him while he was walking in downtown Chicago around 2 a.m. He told detectives that the men shouted racist and homophobic slurs at him, placed a rope around his neck and poured bleach on him. Mr. Smollett said the men used the phrase “MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s campaign slogan.
Skepticism of Mr. Smollett’s account grew after news broke that one of the two men being questioned in the case had appeared in “Empire.” In a shocking twist, the police arrested Mr. Smollett in February and accused him of staging the attack. A grand jury indicted him on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct.
Then, in March, prosecutors dropped all 16 counts, saying that Mr. Smollett agreed to forfeit the $10,000 he paid for his release and was not a threat to public safety. Prosecutors clarified that their decision to drop the case did not exonerate Mr. Smollett. City leaders, including former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the police superintendent, reacted angrily to the decision to drop the case, and the city sued Mr. Smollett for funds to cover the investigation of the reported hate crime.
Robert Chiarito contributed reporting.