Judge: Smollett's PR antics justify unsealing case file

Everyone will soon be able to see the evidence police put together in accusing Jussie Smollett of a hate-crime hoax — and he only has himself and his legal team to blame. Ruling that the Empire actor actively promoted his arrest and quasi-dismissal, a judge in Chicago ruled in favor of media outlets and ordered the case records unsealed. The city’s state attorney Kim Foxx got them sealed after her highly questionable “alternative prosecution” deal let Smollett entirely off the hook and loudly proclaiming his exoneration.

That’s the problem, Judge Steve Watkins concluded:

Judge Stephen Watkins, who presided over a March hearing where prosecutors abruptly dropped their case against Smollett for allegedly faking a hate crime attack near his Streeterville home, ruled in favor of a request from media groups, including the Chicago Sun-Times, to make public all records in Smollett’s case. …

Watkins said that Smollett’s demand for privacy was contradicted by his media appearances before he was charged and after the case was dropped.

“Smollett voluntarily appeared on national television speaking about the incident in detail,” Watkins said, reading from a written court order. “After the March dismissal, he stood in front of numerous cameras… in the courthouse lobby speaking about the case.”

“These are not the actions of a person seeking simply to maintain his privacy or simply to be let alone.”

Smollett’s attorney had argued that the public didn’t need to see the evidence in order to be kept informed about the “process” of the case. That argument didn’t fly with Watkins:

Smollett’s attorney Brian Watson contended that the “Empire” actor has a right to privacy under various statutes that are afforded to thousands of other people every year, and that the media was allowed to cover the process of the case itself, so the public was not barred from learning any new developments.

The “process” of the case isn’t over yet, NBC’s Chicago affiliate notes. A hearing is scheduled for May 31st to determine whether a special prosecutor is needed to investigate Foxx and her office in their decision to essentially dismiss charges against Smollett.

The state’s attorney office promised to comply with the order promptly:

As well they might, although Smollett’s attorneys could still appeal. It will be an uphill battle, though, as the original decision to seal the case was almost as strange as the decision to let Smollett off the hook. As Watkins points out, records get sealed for acquittals and dismissals with prejudice, not usually for other outcomes. It’s always to serve a privacy interest, however, and it’s clear that Smollett and his legal team had no such interest:

Indeed, Smollett’s clear intent since first filing the police report was to publicize it as much as possible. That’s been true regardless of whether the report was true or a hoax. And with this ruling, assuming a higher court doesn’t overturn it, we’ll all be able to see the entire case that the city of Chicago had for its prosecution of Smollett.

That won’t matter much for Smollett’s legal status, at least in a criminal sense. Jeopardy has attached to the Foxx office’s resolution, so unless Smollett undertook some corrupt act to get to that conclusion, he can’t be prosecuted for the hoax. The city can use the unsealed file for its lawsuit against Smollett, though, and perhaps the producers and cast of Empire might have cause to rethink any plans for bringing Smollett’s character back in the last season of the show.