Jussie Smollett walked out of a Chicago jail after serving six days and walked into months, if not years, of uncertainty — from what’s next for his career as an actor and performer to whether he’ll eventually be back behind bars.
The former star of the TV show “Empire” was sentenced last week to 150 days in jail plus probation and a fine after a jury found him guilty of lying to police about being the victim of a racist, anti-gay attack in downtown Chicago in 2019. His release late Wednesday came hours after an appellate court ordered he could go free during the appeal process, which wouldn’t be completed before Smollett had served his full sentence.
Smollett, who is Black and gay, has maintained his innocence. He did n’t speak to reporters as he was escorted out of the Cook County Jail surrounded by security, and his attorneys would n’t say where the 39-year-old may be heading or what he plans to do next .
Under the conditions of the sentence imposed by Cook County Judge James Linn, Smollett must now serve the 30-month probation, though he may leave the state and travel without restrictions. That means he could travel to places like Los Angeles and New York to try to resurrect his career.
But that will be difficult to do, publicists say, and the latest developments may not have done him any favours.
“I think he’s actually doing more harm than good” by fighting the conviction and sentence, said publicist Eric Rose. People can be very forgiving of celebrities who admit wrongdoing and apologize, he said, but instead Smollett is keeping his name and face in the headlines, reminding people of the circumstances of his conviction.
“That’s what we call ‘death by 1,000 cuts,’” Rose said. “From a reputation perspective, that is horrible.”
During his trial, Smollett testified that “I’ve lost my livelihood” because of the charges against him, including losing his role on “Empire.” He has since worked behind the scenes, writing, directing and producing a film, “B-Boy Blues,” that recently won the “fan favorite narrative feature” award at the American Black Film Festival.
While working in front of the camera may be difficult to find, Smollett could get opportunities working behind the scenes, particularly because he has a sister and other family members with successful careers in the industry, said another publicist, Danny Deraney.
“Anything is possible,” he said.
Smollett, who was convicted on five low-level felony counts of disorderly conduct and acquired on a sixth count, also remains in legal limbo, with the prospect of being ordered back to jail to serve the rest of his sentence a very real possibility.
Smollett told Chicago police in January 2019 that he had been attacked by two men as he walked near his home around 2 am He said the attackers also yelled that he was in “MAGA country,” an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan that some Trump critics call racist and discriminatory.
The claims quickly garnered national attention, with Trump weighing in, and Chicago police said they worked around the clock investigating before determining that the attack was a hoax, staged by Smollett to get publicity. At trial, prosecutors presented a check they said Smollett had written to two brothers who worked on the “Empire” set with him as payment to fake the assault.
Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct, but Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx later dropped the case. A special prosecutor was then appointed, and Smollett was charged again.
Outside the jail on Wednesday night, Smollett’s defense attorneys said having to face charges a second time went against his constitutional rights. They also said Smollett was the target of a racist justice system and people playing politics.
The appeal process will almost certainly take months, if not years, with multiple deadlines, extensions of deadlines, new deadlines and more extensions.
For example, now that Smollett’s attorneys have filed their notice that they intend to appeal, they must send to the court the documents, transcripts and other paperwork the case has generated.
“They have 49 days…” said Stephen Komie, a Chicago attorney with extensive experience filing appeals, adding that postponing that deadline for two or three 49-day chunks of time is routine.
Komie explained that once that’s done, Smollett’s attorneys have 35 days to file their brief, but they can get that deadline extended up to four times. Then when it is the prosecutors’ turn to respond, the court will give them as many as four 35-day extensions too.
“If the case goes quickly, they could have oral arguments this time next year,” he said. “But if the case goes at the normal pace you will be calling me in the summer of ‘2023 to tell me about the oral arguments.”
They might then have to wait a couple months or more for a decision, and, depending on how that goes, there could be appeals to the state Supreme Court and possibly the US Supreme Court.
Smollett also still owes $120,000 in restitution and a $25,000 fine, though the Chicago Tribune reports that the money isn’t due for 30 months. And in the meantime, he is still being sued by the city of Chicago for the $130,000 the city says it paid out in police overtime to investigate Smollett’s report that he was attacked.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.