Former Cook County Prosecutor Reacts To Jussie Smollett's Case
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There is still a lot of head-scratching over what happened in the case of Jussie Smollett. He's the actor who was indicted on 16 felony counts related to allegedly filing a false police report. He said he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack. And then yesterday, prosecutors in Cook County, Ill., dropped all charges in what they called an alternative prosecution. They noted that Smollett had done community service and forfeited his $10,000 bond.
For some reaction, we called former Cook County prosecutor Eric Sussman. I asked him whether he has ever seen anything like this.
ERIC SUSSMAN: Quite frankly, I haven't seen a reversal like this by either my former colleagues on the state side or the federal side - not without there being some very significant change in the evidence, which, according to the state's attorney's office, there hasn't been.
CHANG: I want to talk about this phrase we keep hearing, alternative prosecutions. What's sort of the rationale behind this program - so people can move on with their lives? They don't have charges on their records, so they can get jobs.
SUSSMAN: Exactly. The rationale behind the program is, look; people make mistakes for reasons in their past, such as if you have a drug addiction or you're a veteran who has suffered with PTSD - those types of issues. The way those work is, OK, we will, after a certain period of time, agree to drop the charges. In exchange, you will do community service. You will go to a drug treatment program. You will do these types of things. Assuming you do what you're supposed to do, then we will drop the charges.
SUSSMAN: What the prosecution is calling this, in terms of an alternative prosecution, is not something that was ever envisioned by the legislators when they designed these types of programs or by the courts. It seems like the prosecutors are trying to put a round peg in a square hole here by calling this an alternative prosecution rather than calling it what it is, which is, we're not comfortable going forward and airing this case in the public.
CHANG: Now, Smollett has been speaking out. He is denying that he had done anything wrong. He - in fact, he said - I'm quoting here - "I have been truthful and consistent on every single level since Day 1." And his lawyer is chiming in and saying, look; this is a guy who's a victim, who was then vilified. Do you usually see people who receive alternative prosecutions show some contrition, some remorse?
SUSSMAN: As a prosecutor, you would look for acceptance of responsibility.
SUSSMAN: Both a prosecutor and a judge would expect that. That's why this is not an alternative prosecution. Prosecutors do not just drop charges and allow someone to go out there and say, I did nothing wrong, and I was, in essence, wrongfully charged.
And on the flip side, I think it's important to note the state's attorney's office is out there saying, oh, no, he did do something wrong. We do have evidence. And, quite frankly, they need to stop saying that. It's improper for them to be saying that at this point about someone that they have dropped the charges against.
CHANG: So it seems like contradictory things are happening.
SUSSMAN: Yes. Look; when I was in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, there were situations where we dropped prosecutions despite the fact that we believed that someone was guilty. We did those generally under a circumstance where a witness had recanted or evidence that once was available to us is no longer available to us. And what we would say in those circumstances is, we do not have sufficient evidence to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this person committed the crime.
That, again, is not what the prosecutors are saying here. What they're saying here is, we have the evidence Jussie Smollett is guilty, but for reasons that we do not want to share with the public, we're dropping the case.
CHANG: Eric Sussman, former first assistant state's attorney for Cook County, Ill. He's now a partner at the law firm Reed Smith. Thank you so much for joining us today.
SUSSMAN: Thanks, Ailsa.
CHANG: We have reached out to the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and are waiting to hear back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.