Judge Orders Jussie Smollett Criminal Case File to be Unsealed

A grand jury indicted Jussie Smollett on 16 counts of disorderly conduct in February. Cook County prosecutors on March 26, 2019, dropped all charges against Smollett on disorderly conduct charges. The 36-year-old actor vehemently denied lying to police and faking a homophobic attack in the Streeterville neighborhood on Jan. 29, 2019. (Chicago Tribune)

A Cook County judge Thursday ordered the case file in the aborted prosecution of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett unsealed, marking a victory for the Chicago Tribune and other news organizations and adding another twist to a case with seemingly no end to controversy.

Smollett’s attorney had succeeded in sealing the court records at the same unannounced hearing in March at which State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office abruptly dropped all charges that the actor had staged a hate crime attack on himself.

After news organizations sought to unseal the records, Smollett’s legal team opposed the request, citing the actor’s privacy rights.

But Circuit Judge Steven Watkins held that those privacy rights had been trumped by Smollett and his attorneys going before the cameras to declare his innocence.

“These are not the actions of a person seeking to maintain his privacy or simply be let alone,” Watkins said in a 10-page ruling that he read aloud in court. “While the court appreciates that (Smollett) was in the public eye before the events that precipitated this case, it was not necessary for him to address this so publicly and to such an extent. By doing so, the court cannot credit his privacy interest as good cause to keep the case records sealed.”

Tribune attorney Natalie Spears, who represented the news media in the case, said after court that the judge’s decision should be applauded.

“This is about transparency and trust in the system, and we believe the public has a right to know what their government did here and why,” Spears said in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Court Building, the county’s main criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue.

Brian Watson, one of Smollett’s attorneys, would not say Thursday whether the actor might appeal Watkins’ decision to a higher court.

After the ruling came down, reporters waited for several hours in the circuit court clerk’s office — which maintains the criminal records — for the documents in the case to be scanned. In the end, however, little new was revealed — not surprising since Foxx’s office had abruptly dropped the 16-count indictment against Smollett just less than three weeks after he was charged. In fact, the majority of the 192-page file consisted of the media’s motions objecting to the sealing of the file in the first place.

But the judge’s ruling still could have a significant impact. The Chicago Police Department and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office had both denied public records requests on the grounds that the file was sealed. After the seal was lifted, Foxx’s office said it was reviewing its records and expected to release more documents by June 3.

Meanwhile, the legal fallout over the Smollett case is continuing on several fronts.

As reporters waited for the criminal file to be unsealed, former state appellate judge Sheila O’Brien held a news conference to talk about her efforts to get a special prosecutor appointed to investigate Foxx’s handling of the case. She called the judge’s decision unsealing the court file a “good first step” but said more needs to be done to ensure transparency.

“It’s not the court file that’s all-important, it’s Ms. Foxx’s file and the decision-making process in how this case was handled,” O’Brien said in the courthouse lobby.

In her petition, O’Brien highlighted how Foxx recused herself early in the investigation after communicating with a Smollett relative — only to later claim that it was not a recusal “in the legal sense” that would have required the entire office to withdraw from the prosecution.

Communications later released to the Tribune showed Foxx had asked police Superintendent Eddie Johnson to turn over the investigation to the FBI after she was approached by Tina Tchen, a former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama.

A hearing on O’Brien’s request is scheduled for Tuesday before Judge Michael Toomin. O’Brien said she planned to ask Toomin to step aside and let a judge from outside Cook County decide the case to avoid any appearances of bias — a move the judge already shot down last week.

Asked why she was spending so much time and effort to get a special prosecutor appointed, O’Brien said it was simple.

“This case made me jump up off the couch, and my conscience said somebody has to do something,” she said, clutching copies of her court pleadings in a yellow folder. “And I have time and a typewriter, so I started typing.”

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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune – Jason Meisner