Last week on March 16th Jussie Smollett was released from Cook County Jail after serving only six days of his 150 day sentence. Let’s discuss the role money has had in this legal case.
If you aren’t familiar with this case, here are the basics: an actor staged a hate crime against himself and got caught. He hired two brothers he knew from the show “Empire” to beat him up, yell slurs at him, yell “MAGA” at him, pour bleach on him, and put a noose around his neck; Smollett then reported it as an anti-gay and anti-black hate crime to the Chicago police. Police later found phone records showing that Smollett spoke to the brothers an hour before the staged attack and an hour after; the brothers confessed that they were paid $3500 to beat him up. Police also believe that Smollett sent himself a threatening letter via the studio a week prior to the staged attack.
Initially Smollett was indicted on 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct in March 2019, but all charges were dropped by Joseph Magats, who took over after Cook County State Prosecutor Kim Foxx recused herself. If you’ve read our blog Chicago is now a PVP Zone then you’re familiar with Foxx, who first stated that she stepped aside because she had discussed the case with a family member of Smollett but then changed her story to state that she recused herself because of rumors that she and Smollett were related. Whatever the reason, Joseph Magats was left in charge and when questioned about dropping the charges he stated that he did believe Smollett was guilty but that they dropped felony charges regularly, claiming that in the previous two years they had deferred or dropped felony charges almost 6,000 times.
After the charges were dropped, special prosecutor Attorney Dan Webb was assigned in August 2019. In February 2020 Smollett was indicted on 6 felony charges, leading us to a conviction in December 2020 and the March sentencing of 150 days in jail and 30 months of felony probation. For the crimes he was charged with, Smollett could have faced up to three years in jail, so 150 days seems like a light sentence— however, part of his sentence was to pay fines equaling $150,000. In April 2019 the city of Chicago had filed a lawsuit against Smollett for the cost of the investigation, which came in at $130,106.15 and included 1,836 hours of overtime; Smollett filed a countersuit in November of 2020. According to the sentence given by Cook County Judge James Linn, $120,106 of the $150,000 fine would be paid in restitution to the city of Chicago.
This brings us to Wednesday of last week, March 16th, when Jussie Smollett was released from jail after paying in cash an additional $150,000 bond to get out of jail until his appeal. In total he has paid $300,000 as a result of this case, not including the $10,000 bond he initially paid to stay out of jail while awaiting his trial, which he forfeited back in 2019 when the charges were initially dropped.
Finances aside, the reason Smollett was allowed to leave jail to await his appeal is that appeals take a long time— just look at the timeline for this case already. Because his sentence is only 150 days in jail, his attorney argued that by the time the appeal is heard and decided upon Smollett will likely have already carried out the sentence, which wouldn’t be fair if the appellate judge found him not guilty. Another contributing factor was that Smollett was not convicted of a violent crime. This is logical, but we have to consider the fact that his sentence is already less severe than it would be for a person who couldn’t afford the fines Jussie Smollett was ordered by the court to pay. If he had been given a longer sentence, let’s say for two years, would he have been released from jail after only six days so that his appeal could go through? And would he have been released at all if he could not have paid in cash the $150,000 bond to await his appeal outside the confines of jail? It’s hard to say, but it does seem that Smollett’s fame and fortune played a role in his sentence.
Although the goal of the U.S. Justice system is fairness and justice, money has always played a role in how justice is carried out. Even fines for parking illegally or littering are an issue; those who have the money to throw away can act above the law and have no trouble paying fines, but those who can’t have to tread more carefully. Of course, we all know that no one should litter or park illegally because those rules exist for a reason, but the lack of true repercussion for breaking laws shows that money can buy protection from justice. When the punishment is financial it can devastate a family without wealth and have almost no effect on those who have the resources, and that itself is a miscarriage of justice.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog! There is a lot more to explore when it comes to the role of money in the court system, but we hope we gave you something to think about.
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