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Explainer: Why is Donald Trump asking the FBI to look into an alleged hate crime against a TV actor?

Jussie Smollett achieved notoriety after being accused of fabricating a hate crime.

Jussie Smollett talks to the media before leaving Cook County Court after his charges were dropped on Tuesday
Jussie Smollett talks to the media before leaving Cook County Court after his charges were dropped on Tuesday
Image: Paul Beaty/PA Images

EARLIER THIS WEEK, Chicago prosecutors dropped 16 criminal charges against the actor Jussie Smollett in a move that prompted both surprise and criticism.

The 36 year-old actor, who starred on the Fox TV show Empire, achieved notoriety after being accused of fabricating a hate crime that he alleged was committed against him in January.

Police and members of the black community in the US came to Smollett’s defence following the alleged attack on him, before the incident was condemned as a hoax after prosecutors claimed that the actor paid two people to assault him.

Today, US president Donald Trump announced that the FBI and the Justice Department will review a decision by Illinois prosecutors’ to drop all charges against Smollett, calling the case “outrageous” and “an embarrassment”.

For his part, Smollett has maintained his innocence and expressed gratitude to fans who have stood by him, but Trump’s announcement means the investigation isn’t quite finished yet.

Here’s how the case has unfolded so far.

Hate crime

On 29 January, Smollett – who is black and gay – told police that he was attacked by two men at around 2am on his way home from a sandwich shop.

He said his attackers beat him up, threw a chemical on him, and left him with a rope around his neck, evocative of the practice of lynching.

Smollett also claimed that the assailants shouted “This is MAGA country” during the attack, a reference to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”.

He later said that he had received a threatening letter days before the attack, which contained an unknown powder, a sketch of a stick figure hanging from a tree, and a message threatening Smollett that he would die.

Reports of the attack elicited condemnation and shock from within the entertainment community and across the US political divide.

Support came from public figures such as Emma Watson, Katy Perry, and Joe Biden, as well as 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

Donald Trump also commented that the alleged attack was “horrible”.

Local police subsequently announced an investigation into the incident as a possible hate crime, and arrested two brothers at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on 13 February.

New narrative

The same day, Smollett appeared on ABC News to hit back at doubts that were emerging about his account of events.

“At first it was a thing of… if I tell the truth then that’s it, because it’s the truth,” he said.

“Then it became a thing of, like, oh, how can you doubt that? Like, how do you not believe that? It’s the truth.”

However, a different narrative began to emerge not long afterwards.

After questioning the two brothers, Abel and Ola Osundairo, investigators announced on 16 February that the pair had been released without charge – and curiously that there had been developments in the case which required “additional investigative work”.

Four days later, a police spokesman confirmed that Smollett had become a suspect in the investigation for filing a false police report.

Chicago TV station WBBM reported that the Osundairo brothers had claimed that Smollett was unhappy that the letter he had previously received had not gotten enough attention. 

Then, Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson accused Smollett of sending himself the threatening letter and of staging the attack to tap into Americans’ anxieties over racial divisions because he was “dissatisfied with his salary”.

“Smollett paid $3,500 (€3,118) to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud in the process,” he said.

“This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve.”

Law enforcement officials also said the allegations against Smollett could be backed up with evidence, including a cashed cheque, text messages and phone records. 

Smollett subsequently turned himself in and was arrested and charged with a count of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report.

He was also removed from the final two episodes of the latest season of Empire, with producers saying that they had made the decision “to avoid further disruption on set”.

Charges dropped

However, Smollett’s lawyers maintained his innocence and accused police of wanting to “skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing”.

On 8 March, Smollett was indicted by a grand on 16 felony counts over allegations he had lied to police about the attack against him.

His lawyer continued to deny the allegations, calling the process “prosecutorial overkill”, and the actor pleaded not guilty to the charges on 14 March.

Then on Tuesday, prosecutors announced that they were dropping all charges in the case against Smollett.

The move caught both the city’s police chief and mayor by surprise, and Smollett celebrated the outcome as his lawyers and family claimed vindication.

“I am a man of faith, and I am a man that has knowledge of my history,” he said.

“And I would not bring my family, our lives or the movement through a fire like this. I just wouldn’t.”

Prosecutors Drop All Charges Against Jussie Smollett Jussie Smollett leaves the Leighton Criminal Court building after all charges were dropped in his disorderly conduct case on Tuesday Source: Antonio Perez/PA Images

His lawyer Patricia Brown Holmes hit out at Chicago officials following the decision, accusing police of trying to “smear” the actor even after the case was closed.

“We are disappointed the local authorities have continued their campaign against Jussie Smollett after the charges against him have been dropped,” she said.

“We should all allow Mr. Smollett to move on with his life as a free citizen.”

‘Whitewash of justice’

In a subsequent news conference, Smollett claimed he had been “truthful and consistent on every single level” since reporting the attack.

“This has been an incredibly difficult time,” he said. “Honestly, one of the worst in my entire life.”

But the 36 year-old has still come in for criticism.

Both Chicago’s police chief and mayor denounced the decision to drop the case and countered Smollett’s insistence of his innocence. 

“This is a whitewash of justice,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel told a news conference.  

“Mr Smollett is still saying that he is innocent, still running down the Chicago Police Department. How dare (he)?”

Empire Cast Member Attack Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson appear at a news conference in Chicago on Tuesday Source: AP/PA Images

For its part, the prosecutor’s office initially offered little explanation for suddenly reversing the decision, before announcing that the move was a routine procedure carried out in thousands of cases. 

“This is not a new or unusual practice,” the Cook County State Attorney’s office said in a statement.

“An alternative disposition does not mean that there were any problems or infirmities with the case or the evidence.”

The office also stood the Chicago Police Department’s investigation and its decision to approve charges in this case, adding that it “did not exonerate” Smollett.

‘Weighing options’

However, it appears that the matter isn’t finished yet.

On Thursday, Trump announced that the FBI and Justice Department would review the decision to drop charges, calling the move “outrageous”.

Prosecutors had previously said they had shelved the charges against Smollett in exchange for an agreement that he carried out community service and forfeit a $10,000 bond payment.

But his lawyers claimed there was no such agreement, saying the state simply “dismissed the charges”.

They also said they were “weighing [their] options” over the possibility that Smollett could take a lawsuit against Chicago police.

Meanwhile, Fox producers said they were “gratified that all charges against him have been dismissed” but would not comment on whether he would return to star on Empire.

With additional reporting from - © AFP 2019 and Associated Press.

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