A distinct atmosphere of deja vu hung over the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Monday as a black SUV pulled up to the curb and Jussie Smollett stepped out.
The charges the former “Empire” actor was there to face were the same. The allegations that he’d staged a sensational hate crime attack on himself were the same. The breathless media throng awaiting him was the same.
And once inside, standing next to the lawyer who appeared with him when he was first charged last year, the plea Smollett entered was also the same:
And so what easily ranks as the most infamous disorderly conduct case in recent Chicago history began all over again, the differences this time being a new judge and a special prosecutor, Dan K. Webb.
Webb’s special grand jury earlier this month indicted Smollett on six counts of disorderly conduct alleging he lied to police about being the victim of a racist and homophobic attack on a frigid night in Chicago in January 2019. The veteran attorney was appointed last summer to investigate the Smollett matter after the first charges were abruptly dropped by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, bringing controversy and national scrutiny.
But while Webb’s investigation did lead to a renewed criminal case against Smollett, all indications were the legal battle may be just beginning.
After Monday’s brief arraignment, Smollett’s attorneys said they had no intention of negotiating any plea deal with Webb, and that they would take the case all the way to trial if need be.
And as Smollett was on his way to court, his lawyers filed an emergency petition with the Illinois Supreme Court asking that the indictment and Webb’s appointment as prosecutor be thrown out altogether.
In the courtroom of Associate Judge James Linn, where Smollett entered his plea, his attorneys also filed paperwork Monday requesting that the case be tossed out, contending it violates Smollett’s double-jeopardy protections.
Smollett arrived Monday with an entourage that included members of his family and apparent bodyguards. As they walked silently up the courthouse steps, several cameramen tripped as they backed up, creating a small pileup. Smollett did not respond to questions shouted by reporters as he made his way into court.
As he waited to hear which judge would take his case, Smollett sat ramrod-straight in the gallery next to supporters including his sister, actor Jurnee Smollett-Bell.
Across the packed courtroom gallery sat brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, key prosecution witnesses who told police Smollett paid them to stage the attack. The defense has, in turn, accused them of actually beating Smollett and then lying to police about what happened.
After two false starts, Judge LeRoy Martin Jr. announced that Smollett’s case was assigned to Judge Linn, a Chicago native and veteran jurist who presides in an airy seventh-floor courtroom.
The first two judges selected via a random generator, William Gamboney and Diane Gordon Cannon, both happened to be out sick Monday.
“I want a judge that’s here,” Martin said.
In Linn’s crowded courtroom, Smollett stood silently before the bench as his attorneys asked the judge to postpone his arraignment in light of their request to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Linn turned them down, but released Smollett on a recognizance bond, meaning that unlike last year, the actor did not have to post any cash to stay out of custody as his case is pending.
Webb had asked Linn to set the same $100,000 bond that was instated in the first case. Smollett had paid 10% of that figure — $10,000 — to get out of jail, funds that were forfeited to the city as part of an agreement with Cook County prosecutors when charges were dropped in March of last year.
Linn said he expects the actor to appear for court dates during which substantive arguments will be made; it is not yet clear whether that will be the case for the next hearing March 18.
If Smollett’s attorneys are successful before the state’s high court, however, the case will be tossed out altogether. They argued in their filing Monday that Cook County Judge Michael Toomin overstepped his authority when he ordered the appointment of a special prosecutor.
After the charges were abruptly dropped, Sheila O’Brien, a retired Illinois appellate judge, petitioned Toomin to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the handling of the investigation. After extensive legal arguments last summer, Toomin ruled that Foxx had the right to withdraw herself from overseeing the prosecution but held no legal authority to then delegate that responsibility to her top deputy.
After Toomin found that Smollett’s first prosecution was invalid, Webb was appointed to determine whether the actor should again face charges.
Smollett’s attorneys are challenging Toomin’s logic in their motion to the Illinois Supreme Court, arguing that Foxx had every right under the law to withdraw from the case the way she did and to assign her top deputy to handle the case.
Toomin “lacked authority to essentially horizontally reverse the circuit court’s dismissal of the case and to appoint a special prosecutor to ‘further prosecute’ Mr. Smollett,” their motion argues.
The hearing before Linn was over in less than 10 minutes. Afterward, Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez, the attorney for the Osundairo brothers, told the dozens of reporters waiting in the courthouse lobby that the brothers had come to court to “support the process” and indicated that they would also be observing future court dates — a highly unusual move for such important witnesses in a criminal case.
The brothers have been truthful throughout the process, including in recent interviews with the special prosecutor’s office, she said, and have gotten little in return.
“To anyone out there who thinks that they got some kind of immunity or some kind of plea deal out of this, that’s incorrect,” she said. “Their lives have been put on hold for this moment and for this process.”
Speaking at the same microphones minutes later, Smollett’s lead attorney, Tina Glandian, told reporters it was surprising to see the brothers there.
“I’ll leave it to you to wonder why they bothered to appear here,” she said.
Glandian said Smollett continues to staunchly maintain his innocence and finds the ordeal frustrating.
“He’s strong, he’s resilient, he’ll get through this, but it’s frustrating,” she said.
Smollett left the courthouse shortly after 11:30 a.m. without addressing reporters. As news helicopters hovered overhead, his entourage pushed past a crush of camera crews, climbed back into an SUV and headed south on California Avenue.
Smollett, who is black and openly gay, told police last year he was attacked by two men as he was walking home after getting a sandwich at a Subway restaurant. The men shouted slurs, poured bleach or a similar substance on him and hung a noose around his neck, he told officers.
But the actor, best known for his now-ended role on the Fox TV show “Empire,” eventually turned from victim to suspect, and in a twist, police said that the entire incident was a hoax and that Smollett actually staged the assault from start to finish to bolster his career.
In bringing the new charges earlier this month, Webb said he considered “the extensive nature” of Smollett’s falsehoods, the massive amount of time and money Chicago police put into the investigation, and the strength of the evidence cited by Foxx’s own prosecutors in bringing the original charges.