Smollett Decision A Bold Move For State’s Attorney’s Office | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

Smollett Decision A Bold Move For State’s Attorney’s Office

Two dueling protests over the State’s Attorney's office's decision to drop charges against Empire actor Jussie Smollett took place in Chicago’s Loop on Monday.

On the one side were activists who support Foxx’s move, saying justice was served. On the other side were members of the Chicago Police Department who believe dropping the charges represents a miscarriage of justice.

Morning Shift checks in with a criminal justice expert who wrote the book the Cook County court system for her take on the charges against Smollett being dropped and the outcry from CPD. 

What does Kim Foxx's decision say about power in the Cook County justice system?

Jenn White: So you say that this decision, which was made by prosecutors in the State’s Attorney’s Office and defended by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, represents a new bold form of independence for that office. How so?

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: I had researched the criminal court system in Cook County for over a decade. I was there during Dick Devine’s era, as well as watching and researching during Anita Alvarez’s tenure. And what was the same in that era was that prosecutors largely deferred to police and showed them kind of a deference on cases.

And so, when we think about that era, which was very recent history, we have to understand  that what Kim Foxx did — in some ways, she exercised discretion independent of police officers, which is well within her rights of the law, but seems to officers a major reform. Because there is a kind of sensible line of discretion that is unsupervised or untainted by police. I believe this protest is really a resistance to that reform. That’s quite a radical idea in Chicago.

'A fight over who owns and controls’ the criminal court 

Gonzalez Van Cleve: When you see the egregious types of cases, like the cover-up of the Laquan McDonald case, you do not have that level of misconduct unless officers know that when the case goes to the court both the prosecutors and the judges will look the other way … that’s why we don’t see many officers charged. That’s why there was such a reluctance to charge officer (Jason) Van Dyke, even though he eventually was convicted.

And so I think that is the context in which Chicagoans need to see the case. It’s not about Jussie Smollett’s innocence or guilt. I think Kim Foxx was very clear she had a decent case but had some questions whether she could win a trial with the evidence she had. This is about reform; this is about putting a sensible wall between the prosecution and the police. And it is a basic cross-check on power that many jurisdictions have in the nation.

The role of fame in the Jussie Smollett case

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: I think there is an outrage, an anger, over this actor maybe abusing his stardom, creating a really egregious accusation. Hate crimes are up in the United States right now, so in some ways to manipulate that statistic and even call it into question is something I think many of us are angry about.

But I think we need to understand that charges are dropped across the Chicagoland area all the time. I was there seeing prosecutors nullify cases for first-time offenders ... so this is kind of a normal case. What is abnormal is the spotlight and kind of using this case as an audit on the entire system.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Stephanie Kim. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.

GUEST: Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, associate professor of criminal justice and sociology at the University of Delaware, author of Crook County: Racism And Injustice In America’s Largest Criminal Court

LEARN MORE: Dueling protests Monday in response to Kim Foxx and Jussie Smollett (Chicago Tribune 4/1/19)

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