After Chicago activist is barred from courthouse during Smollett trial, judge issues statement saying he didn’t intend to ban anyone

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  • George N. Leighton
    American jurist

A Chicago activist and writer was barred from the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse for two days during the Jussie Smollett trial last week.

The judge issued a statement late Friday evening within an hour of a Tribune report that activist and rap artist Bella BAHHS (Black Ancestors Here Healing Society) had been told Tuesday she was not allowed inside the courtroom or the courthouse.

Cook County Judge James Linn contacted the newspaper through a spokeswoman and clarified his position in an email.

“To clarify, the Hon. James Linn did not intend to ban anyone from the courtroom, but asked that the person in question not be in the first row,” the emailed statement read. “The court is open to the public, subject to COVID-19 precautions that limit the number of people in the courtroom to 57.”

BAHHS told the Tribune last week that she was asked to leave the courtroom shortly after she gave an interview to reporters in the lobby of the building.

BAHHS sat in the front row of Linn’s courtroom with the Smollett family Tuesday during morning testimony and then was asked at the lunch break by Smollett’s media representative if she would be willing to speak to reporters in the lobby of the courthouse.

She agreed and then returned for afternoon testimony. Later that afternoon she was told by the media representative that the judge wanted her to leave the courtroom. BAHHS said she was escorted out of the courthouse. When she returned Thursday to attend the trial again, she was again escorted out of the building.

The Cook County sheriff’s office confirmed in a statement that Linn made a “verbal” order barring “an individual seated in the gallery of his courtroom from the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building for the remainder of the trial of Jussie Smollett” and that sheriff’s deputies had escorted this person out in compliance with the order.

BAHHS said she felt physically threatened and violated by her removal because the guards were armed.

The barring of BAHHS from the courtroom came after Linn had issued a verbal directive to attorneys to not speak with the media. The order was never detailed in writing.

BAHHS said she did not speak to Smollett’s defense attorneys about her statements to the media beforehand. She told the media representative what she intended to say.

When asked by the Tribune about the statements, BAHHS said she told reporters that while she did not know Smollett to be someone who would falsify a story, she did know “CPD to be that type of department though.”

Within hours, she was told she could not be in the courtroom. BAHHS told the Tribune at that time that she believed it was because of her opinions.

“I think he did not want me in that courtroom because of my political views,” she said.

BAHHS, who was born Ambrell Gambrell, grew up in the Austin neighborhood and is a rapper, artist and writer who has interviewed Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Mayor Lori Lightfoot for the TRiiBE, a digital media platform that covers the Black experience in Chicago.

She is a founder of the Sister Survivor Network, an organization that focuses on the impact of incarceration on Black women and girls, and is an abolitionist activist who is pushing to replace the criminal justice system with non-law-enforcement resources that address the root causes of crime.

Linn was contacted mid-afternoon Friday by the Tribune with questions about both the order and the fact BAHHS had been removed from the courtroom. He did not respond with the statement until just before 9 p.m.

Linn, however, had addressed his concerns about the media on the day BAHHS was removed after special prosecutor Dan Webb alerted him to some “press issues.”

Linn first responded that the lawyers had agreed they were not going to make comments or statements to the press.

“It’s not a gag order; it’s just an agreement between the lawyers,” he said.

Linn went on to say he was aware of “statements made in the lobby” and then mentioned “a self-described activist.”

Linn also said, “Nobody is going to infect this trial.”

BAHHS, reached late Friday night, said she did not believe it was a miscommunication and pointed out that Linn never addressed her directly about any of it. She said attributing what happened to a miscommunication also absolves “anyone from being held accountable.”

“My right to access a public space as a voting and taxpaying member of the public was violated,” she said.

BAHHS, before Linn issued his statement, said her removal was particularly concerning because it threatens to limit and prejudice the public’s understanding of court proceedings.

“It’s about who gets to bear witness to these public trials,” she said.

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