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The Jussie Smollett riddle this trial won't solve
No matter how the jury rules, we won't get to the bottom of Kim Foxx's preposterous handling of this case
12-2-2021 (issue No. 12)
I’ve had lots of fun writing the Picayune Sentinel since early September, and response from readers as measured by page views, subscriptions and thoughtful responses has surpassed my expectations. Accordingly I’ve decided to commit to publishing at least through the end of 2022.
And, starting today, I’m asking readers to provide additional support with a paid subscription at the minimum price permitted by the Substack platform — $5 a month or the discounted annual price of $50. There’s a “Founding Member” level which is for those who want to be able to put “Founding Member, Picayune Sentinel” on their curriculum vitae.
A great gift idea? Why, I’d never thought of that, but yes!
The Thursday Picayune Sentinel will continue to be free, but in a few weeks I plan to open up a patrons-only comment forum in an effort to create a community of engaged readers unpolluted, as most comment forums are, by drive-by snark and insults. The heavily edited boards I hosted at my old Change of Subject blog at the Tribune was a model for (mostly) useful and respectful discourse, and I hope to replicate that.
I will also move much of the feedback/dissent exchanges from Z-mail over to paid-subscriber editions, and I will produce other bonus content.
I won’t try to tell you that the extras will be worth the investment — I’d ask you instead to think of them as similar to the tote bags or souvenir mugs you get for supporting public broadcasting: tokens of appreciation. And I’m asking you to consider donating as a way of boosting independent local commentary and assuring that I’ll keep going on beyond 2022.
This publication will continue to traffic in politics, culture, government and sports — much but not all with a Chicago focus — as well as amusing tweets, fun links and pleasing tunes. Some of my opinions will confound your expectations and vary from your own, but I’ll remain open to counterpoints.
Help me along this journey!
News & Views on the Dread Head Cowboy and abortion rights
Mary Schmich on sunsets
Z-mail on Waukesha, Rittenhouse and more
The first love song that really got to me
Last week’s winning tweet
Scroll down to read this week’s nominees or click here to vote in the new poll.
Jussie Smollett’s story never made any damn sense
“Empire” TV star and budding music celebrity Jussie Smollett said he left his Streeterville apartment at 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 29, 2019, one of the coldest days of the year, to walk several blocks for a Subway sandwich. A pair of tough guys in ski masks just happened to be waiting for him on the sidewalk as he returned. They shouted homophobic slurs and yelled “This is MAGA country,” a reference to then-President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, as they administered a patty-cake beating to Smollett outside the view of security cameras. They then looped a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him before retreating into the darkness.
What were the odds that these putative assailants with their symbolic props would be staking out Smollett’s apartment in the middle of a bone-chilling night on the wildly unlikely chance that he’d get hungry and decide to brave the elements and wander forth rather than simply raid the fridge or call for delivery?
Why the almost comically mild “beating” and the ludicrous claim that Streeterville was “MAGA country”?
It didn’t seem to add up. And the suspicions of investigators were amplified when police identified the “attackers” as Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, Nigerian bodybuilders whom Smollett knew from the “Empire” set. They told police that Smollett had hired them to stage a phony attack.
A little more than a month after the incident, a Cook County grand jury indicted Smollett on 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct. That seemed about right. Smollett’s alleged self-aggrandizing shenanigans drew international attention, including flabbergast from particularly credulous pundits and pols such as Trump who said, “I think that’s horrible. It doesn’t get worse as far as I’m concerned.” It also diverted police resources in a city that had seen more than 550 murders the previous year.
Very few people expected or even wanted Smollett to do jail time for his alleged stunt. A couple visiting from Minnesota who falsely claimed to have been robbed on Lower Wacker Drive in December 2017 were hit with similar felony charges and sentenced to two years of probation, 30 days of community service and court costs.
So many of us were confused and angry when Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx abruptly and without explanation dropped all charges against Smollett just 18 days later. Her precipitous surrender — after a peculiar announcement that she was informally recusing herself from the case — allowed Smollett to stand in front of a bank of TV cameras at the courthouse and proclaim his innocence, which was more than a little galling.
Justice demanded resolution and accountability. Yet Foxx appeared oblivious to this imperative as she made the media rounds attempting to explain why her office hadn’t at least extracted a guilty plea or even a public apology.
She said those outraged by the outcome were "people who don't understand the intricacies of the justice system."
But what she didn’t seem to understand is that high-profile criminal cases — even ones as fundamentally insignificant as false police reports — are the lens through which the public sees and evaluates the administration of justice as a whole.
Are investigations thorough and honest? Is the process of obtaining an outcome transparent and fair? Does the result give us confidence that all the low-profile cases most of us never hear of are being handled with integrity?
Foxx's first assistant, Joe Magats, assured reporters that the case against Smollett had not fallen apart and that there were no "problems or infirmities in the case or the evidence." He said prosecutors were confident they could have secured a conviction had they gone to trial.
But Foxx submitted an op-ed to the Tribune in which she said that “specific aspects of the evidence and testimony ... would have made securing a conviction against Smollett uncertain.”
The Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police joined with a large group of suburban police chiefs to express "no confidence" in Foxx, taking advantage of her inept handling of the Smollett case to air a far larger set of grievances over what they said was Foxx's tendency "to decriminalize or ignore (nonviolent crime), regardless of any collateral cost which is (borne) overwhelmingly by individual communities.”
Foxx, meanwhile, complained her critics were racist and contended that the dismissal of Smollett’s case merely illustrated that her office was prioritizing the prosecution of serious, violent crimes.
"I learned that change is hard," Foxx said in an interview with Axios when asked what the Smollett case had taught her. "We started this administration talking about the fact that we were going to use our criminal justice system to deal with violence. And those cases that could be dealt with outside of the justice system, we would deal with outside of the justice system.
“But even as you do that, you have to keep people informed,” she said. “You have to talk about it. You can't do things where people don't understand. Because once that happens, once the misunderstanding happens, it's hard to unwind that. So I think the biggest lesson that I've learned thus far, and not that there aren't ongoing lessons, is making sure that we are keeping the public informed about not just what we do, but why we do what we do… Truth is, I didn't handle (the Smollett case) it well. I own that."
Well, no, she never owned it.
"People don't understand" even still what happened in those 18 days between the grand jury indictment of Smollett and her office’s decision to drop all charges. It shouldn't be "hard to unwind that" if the explanation is plausible.
Foxx's persistent failure to offer such an explanation resulted in the appointment of an independent special prosecutor to review the entire matter. That special prosecutor, Dan Webb, said he found no evidence that Foxx routinely disposed of cases the way she disposed of the Smollett case, as she'd claimed, and that "decision-makers overseeing the Smollett resolution decision have not identified any new evidence they learned of between the time of indictment and dismissal of the indictment that changed their view that the evidence against Mr. Smollett was strong."
Webb re-indicted Smollett, but his full report is still under seal for reasons that have never been adequately explained.
I voted enthusiastically for Foxx in 2016, but prior to the 2020 Democratic primary I concluded that she deserved to lose her job over how she handled the Smollett matter. Her opaque and condescending pieties infuriated those who wanted to see the alleged selfish charlatan brought to justice after being charged with perpetrating an ugly hoax that stood to harm victims of real hate crimes.
In the March 2020 Democratic primary, Foxx beat her closest rival, the well-funded Bill Conway, by 19 percentage points despite how relentlessly he’d hammered her on the Smollett issue. In the general election that fall, she thumped Republican challenger Pat O’Brien by 15 percentage points.
The prevailing sentiment seemed to be, well, yeah, she made an unholy mess of a stupid little case but we otherwise think she’s better suited for the job than any of her opponents. A guilty verdict for Smollett at the ongoing trial is unlikely to change that view or to have any impact at all in 2024 when she’ll next face voters if she chooses to run for re-election.
From news reports, I’ve learned, among other things, that Smollett and the Osundairo brothers allegedly scoped out the scene of the purported beating in advance, that Abimbola Osundario was a successful amateur boxer and that he says he ground his knuckle into Smollett’s face to create a bruise without actually punching him.
I wish I could be watching live, as I watched most of the recent trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.
There is some irony in Cook County Associate Judge James Linn’s refusal to allow video cameras in the courtroom. Lack of transparency in the process of criminal justice has deeply infected the Smollett case, from Foxx’s squirrely evasions to the Webb report being kept under wraps, yet Linn decided to go old school and ban electronic coverage.
Perhaps he was spooked by the social media attacks on Judge Bruce Schroeder, the Democratically appointed jurist who presided over the Rittenhouse trial and was branded a white-supremacist and Trump lover for routine rulings protecting the defendant’s rights. Perhaps Linn doesn’t want to be recognized during his next visit to the grocery story.
But whatever the reason, it’s got to stop. Every criminal trial in Illinois should be available to be live streamed if there is sufficient public interest. Nuts to the judges and their fussy prerogatives. The public is better informed and can better trust the system when it operates fully in the open.
Perhaps the jury will conclude that Jussie Smollett’s wild story makes sense after all. But no way has Kim Foxx given us an accounting that adds up.
News & Views
Horse-riding activist Adam Hollingsworth was hit with contempt charges Tuesday and sentenced to 90 days in jail after arguing with Cook County Judge Michael McHale.
McHale is presiding over Hollingsworth’s trial on animal-cruelty charges stemming from a September 2020 incident in which the Woodlawn resident rode his horse more than 7 miles on the Dan Ryan Expressway to protest violence against children, impeding traffic and severely injuring his horse.
Hollingsworth fired his pro-bono attorneys and has been making a mess of attempting to represent himself in court. After he complained on Monday that prosecutors had not turned over necessary files to him, Judge McHale ordered him to return the next day with the computer flash drive that prosecutors said contained all the files. The Sun-Times reported:
Tuesday, after Hollingsworth claimed a dog ate the flash drive and repeatedly interrupted the judge, McHale had the activist led out of the courtroom by sheriff’s deputies.
It’s impossible for a layman to diagnose someone based on news reports, but Hollingsworth appears to be dealing with some deeper problems. Locking him up helps no one.
“If you want to see a revolution, go ahead, outlaw Roe v. Wade and see what the response is of the public, particularly young people." —Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire
Pretty to think so if you’re a supporter of abortion rights, as I am. It’s long been conventional wisdom that the Republican establishment wants to keep Roe v. Wade on the books in part because the hope of overturning that landmark 1973 abortion-rights ruling energizes base conservative voters and right-wing culture warriors, and in part because a rejection of Roe stands to turbo-charge moderate and Democratic voters.
In “Republicans Will Be Sorry if the Supreme Court Overturns Roe,” Slate’s William Saletan envisions “a furious public backlash if the justices uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban” that was argued at the high court Wednesday morning:
“Many Americans are uncomfortable with banning abortion, even when they are personally opposed to it. They don’t like the procedure, but they don’t like the government getting involved either. Two weeks ago, in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 75 percent of voters said abortion decisions should be ‘left to the woman and her doctor’ rather than ‘regulated by law.’ In a Data for Progress survey, 66 percent of likely voters chose a pro-choice statement—“The government should not interfere in personal matters like reproductive rights”—while 26 percent chose the pro-life alternative: ‘The government should be able to make decisions about reproductive rights, especially when it involves protecting the sanctity of human life.’ In a Navigator poll, 33 percent of voters identified themselves as pro-life, but 60 percent identified themselves as pro-choice.”
Looks like we’ll find out. Listening to and then re-reading the arguments from Wednesday it looks pretty clear to me that the Trump-packed court now has five justices willing to overturn Roe and its companion Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) — Brett Kavanaugh Amy Coney Barrett, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.
What’s less clear is which party will benefit from a ruling that would throw the issue of abortion to state legislatures (or possibly to Congress, though getting 60 votes in the U.S. Senate for any federal abortion law seems highly unlikely).
Those favoring abortion rights may well have the numbers, but, after years of complacency, will they have the energy? The passion? Will the abortion issue get lazy Democratic voters off their butts and to the polls for the 2022 mid-terms to try to extend a right that every woman of childbearing age has had her entire life? Or will the prospect of cementing anti abortion-rights legislation into the statute books galvanize lazy Republican voters?
What I see for sure is the abortion issue back on the front burner. Twenty years ago I engaged in a vigorous online debate with two abortion foes and I can’t think of a single new argument from either side since then.
Land of Linkin’
The Picayune Sentinel on the air: On Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., WCPT AM-820 host Joan Esposito and I chat about ideas raised in that day’s issue. The listen-live link is here.
The Wall Street Journal reports that AirPods, a technology I embraced this year after fighting it since 2016, “have become too widespread to be cool. So, perhaps inevitably, contrarian trendsetters are reviving some ancient technology: corded headphones. Fashionable young celebrities including Bella Hadid, Lily-Rose Depp and Zoë Kravitz have been photographed strutting around town with blatantly corded headphones.” One reason: “While AirPods subtly blend into your look, making you at least appear available to the outside world, corded headphones wall you off from others.”
The making of Dr. Oz, How an award-winning doctor turned away from science and embraced fame. Some background on the egregious, Oprah-created quack who is now running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.
A few tickets still remain for the live, in-person Songs of Good Cheer programs at the Old Town School of Folk Music December 10-12.
11-year-old ‘prolific carjacker’ arrested, allegedly tied to several cases. Yes, as a matter of fact I do take note of stories like this that refute the allegations of my critics earlier this year that we have little to fear from those in early adolescence. To be clear, when kids of tender age get caught up in violent criminal activity it’s a tragedy all the way around, a systemic failure with multiple dimensions.
From ‘Succession’ to ‘Spencer,’ Hollywood is obsessed with the lives of the ultra-rich and oblivious by the Tribune’s Nina Metz. “It’s alarming the way these projects avoid interrogating how this wealth was acquired… In the end, who is really paying for all this wealth?”
And, finally, I had some questions after watching the movie “King Richard” on HBO Max, and here’s where I found answers:
How sanitized is the portrayal of Venus and Serena’s father? See: Richard Williams was only a king in his head, Understanding the Real Richard Williams and Richard Williams Devoted His Life To Venus & Serena, But They Weren’t His Only Kids.
Mary Schmich: “I’ve never seen a sunset quite like this…”
My former colleague Mary Schmich posts column-like thoughts most Tuesdays on Facebook. Here is this week’s offering:
Why are we so fascinated by sunrises and sunsets? Why are we so compelled to take photos of that big, moving yellow ball? (Of course it's really us who are moving.)
Facebook is full of photos of the sun rising and setting, each one snapped and posted as if there has never been one like it. And you know what? There hasn't.
That impulse is what prompts me to post this photo, which I took yesterday, November 29, 2021, on the Michigan side of our great lake. The color arrived unexpectedly, like an explosion, at the end of a cold, gray day.
It happened to be the sunset on my 68th birthday (a day I happen to share with the diverse likes of Louisa May Alcott, Rahm Emanuel, Jacques Chirac and Hanke Gratteau). I stood there watching it, thinking, “I’m 68 years old and I’ve never seen a sunset quite like this. I've never seen that particular shade of yellow. This world never stops being exciting. Never stops revealing itself."
And that’s why we take these photos. Because we know that no two are the same, and we recognize, if not consciously every time, that that distant yellow ball represents forces bigger and more enduring than we are. It’s a way of visualizing the mystery, and pausing time, for just a moment. Or at least pretending that we can.
Post comments here.
Jon L. — In the segment on the Mincing Rascals podcast about the tragedy at the Waukesha Christmas parade, I was disappointed that no one made the point that the purpose of bail is to get the accused to show up for trial. Obviously, there can be legitimate debate over how high a bail serves that purpose. But, realizing it is tough to stick to principle if a person out on bail commits an awful crime, to use it as punishment or incapacitation (a legitimate purpose of incarceration after conviction) is extremely problematic constitutionally.
I’m of a mixed mind about this. Yes, the legal presumption of innocence attaches to anyone prior to a conviction and we don’t lock up innocent people. But that presumption is a bit of a fiction, no? In general we don’t arrest and charge people without a fairly high common-sense presumption that they are, in fact, guilty. And in the case of violent criminals, the common-sense presumption that they are dangerous to others. It’s not uncommon for individuals deemed highly dangerous to be held without bond despite the legal presumption of innocence.
CWB, a website that reports relentlessly on local crime, notes that a man charged last week with attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery is the 56th person “accused of killing, trying to kill, or shooting someone in Chicago this year” while on bond for another felony. The site adds, “The actual number of murders and shootings committed by people on felony bail is undoubtedly much higher than the numbers seen here. Since 2017, CPD has made arrests in just 4% of shootings and 31% of murders, according to the city’s data.”
What this suggests to me is that judges need to do a better job determining which arrestees pose a danger to the community and incapacitate more of them.
Bill L. — One thing I haven't seen in the coverage of the Kyle Rittenhouse case is how his future has been changed by what he did. He has a very distinctive name. I'm guessing one of his biggest regrets about what he did is what his future holds now that his name is so well known. I'll bet this is one of his biggest regrets.
His last name is unusual enough to be instantly recognizable by store clerks, potential employers, potential friends and lovers and so on that forevermore he will be reviled, celebrated but never anonymous. This fame may feel wonderful to him now that he’s a right-wing darling and being hailed as a hero, but my guess is it will wear off and become something of an albatross.
A recent Morning Consult poll of 2,200 U.S. adults found 43% of those polled approved of Rittenhouse’s acquittal and 39% disapproved. So two in every five random people he meets will think he belongs in prison for murder. I can imagine in a few years he’ll change his look and his last name in an effort to construct the life he might have led if he’d never gone to Kenosha that night.
Rita S. When my Tribune home-delivery subscription recently came up for renewal I really wanted to renew but the bill was for $279.50 for 6 months. What??? That's insane. I called customer service and finally yelled at the automated system enough to be able to speak to someone. Yes, she said I could pay $190 for the same period. I asked if there was a way to get it lower and she said that because I was a long time subscriber I could have it at $120.50 for the 6 months.
I’m continuing to get a lot of Z-mail on subscription-pricing tactics at newspapers, which really aren’t all that different from cable, cell phone, internet, landline, satellite broadcasting and home security services as well as gym memberships. And look, I get that putting out a newspaper is expensive and advertising ain’t paying the freight anymore. But taking advantage of inattentive or less price-sensitive customers by being opaque about pricing is the kind of slimy behavior that a newspaper ought to be exposing, not practicing.
(By the way, I have very little control over subscription practices and pricing at Substack but if you ever have any issues with a paid PS subscription, please write to me. )
I got all dressed up for Ohio State University fan Brandon Pope of WCIU-TV, then half an hour before we recorded this week’s Mincing Rascals podcast he bowed out of the panel saying a “shoot” was taking precedence. Likely story!
The Omicron variant (we didn’t know it for the show, but I later learned the Greek letter “Xi” is pronounced something like “KZigh,” and not “Shee,” as in the name of the Chinese president.)
Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the abortion case heard Wednesday at the U.S. Supreme Court
The political-map mess in Chicago
The Apple TV+ documentary series “Get Back”
Subscribe to the Rascals wherever you get your podcasts. Or bookmark this page.
This week’s nominees for Tweet of the Week:
There is no ‘i’ in gaslight. … @neat_hot
Double negatives are never not confusing. … various
Parents, then: Would it kill you to pick up the phone? Parents, now: Would it kill you to put down the phone? … @TheAlexNevil
My favorite thing about being a parent is being told I am wrong constantly by someone who depends on me for food, clothing and shelter … @meantomyself
When I'm bored I go on porn sites and write in comments sections “Why are you doing this? Please come home. Your mother and I are heartbroken.” … @frenziedlanes
If I had a time machine I would go back and punch myself in face when I picked up the Elf on the Shelf. … @difficultpatty
Prisoner 1: What are you in for? Prisoner 2: Murder. Prisoner 3: Arson. Hamburglar: All right, well, it feels stupid now. … @TheAndrewNadeau
My portrayal of “Frugal Dad” is a lights-out performance. …@RickAaron
I bet the worst part about being a birthday cake is when you're set on fire and then eaten by the hero that saved you. … @DurtMcHurtt
Hanukkah is the original Kaitlyn. There are 500 ways to spell it and no one ever tells you it's spelled wrong. … @bigpoppadrunk
There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class…..Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My dad was an early admirer of Kris Kristofferson well before he also became known as movie star (“Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,” “A Star Is Born” and many other films). And in my early adolescence I wore out the grooves on Kristofferson’s second album, “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” (1971), particularly this song:
I’d not yet experienced romantic love, but the aspirational quality of the refrain and Kristofferson’s gift for imagery became the theme song for every hopeless crush I had until crushes started turning into relationships. It was only then that I recognized the warning in the penultimate line — “Dreaming was as easy as believing it was never gonna end.”
This song — like many of what we think of as “love songs” — is really more about limerence, that “state of infatuation or obsession with another person that involves an all-consuming passion.” But it’s that dollop of reality at the end that gives it extra resonance.
Accepting nominations for great songs about a love that endures. Does “Rose of My Heart” qualify?
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next week.
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