By Brendan O'Brien
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago prosecutors on Tuesday dropped charges accusing "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett of staging a phony hate crime, a stunning move that drew the fury of the city's police superintendent and mayor, who called the decision a "whitewash of justice."
Smollett, who is black and gay, told reporters on Tuesday that he had always been truthful when he said two masked men threw a noose around his neck and poured chemicals on him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs and expressing support for U.S. President Donald Trump in January.
But Mayor Rahm Emanuel lambasted the surprise reversal by Cook County prosecutors, emphasizing that a grand jury concluded the attack was a hoax and hammering Smollett as indecent for claiming to be a victim.
"This is a whitewash of justice," Emanuel told a news conference. "From top to bottom, this is not on the level."
The mayor's comments capped a dizzying three hours that began at a brief court hearing on Tuesday, when prosecutors abruptly announced they were abandoning the case. In a statement after the hearing, the office of the Cook County State's Attorney cited Smollett's prior community service and his willingness to forfeit his $10,000 bond, calling it a "just disposition."
Smollett, his lawyers and his family hailed the move as vindication of his account, which had touched off a furor in the United States, where Trump's 2016 presidential victory has fueled increasingly heated political divisions.
'OWED AN APOLOGY'
The backlash from Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson - who said he was unaware of prosecutors' plans beforehand - made clear the Jan. 29 incident remains clouded by unanswered questions.
"Do I think justice was served? No," Johnson told reporters. "I think this city is still owed an apology."
Prosecutors did not respond to requests for a response to those comments.
The Cook County State's Attorney's office said it viewed the outcome as appropriate, though prosecutors also said they stood by the initial decision to charge Smollett with filing a false report.
First Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Magats told the Chicago Sun-Times that the decision to drop the case did not mean Smollett is innocent of the charges, or that he was a victim. He said prosecutors used the same criteria in determining Smollett's fate that they do for any defendant, noting that the actor has no felony criminal background and was not accused of a violent crime.
"The fact there was an alternative disposition in this case is not and should not be viewed as some kind of admission there was something wrong with the case," he told the newspaper.
Initial reports of the attack bolstered critics of the president who say his rhetoric has encouraged racial violence, and Smollett earned widespread sympathy from celebrities and some Democratic presidential candidates.
But police arrested Smollett on Feb. 21, accusing the actor of paying two brothers $3,500 to stage the attack in an effort to use the notoriety to advance his career.
The allegations against Smollett gave fresh ammunition to Trump's supporters, who argue the press is too quick to embrace any news that casts the president in a negative light.
The brothers were arrested after getting captured on surveillance footage near the site of the alleged assault. Police said in February they had confessed to their role in Smollett's plot and were released without charges. One of them had worked with Smollett on "Empire," Fox's hip-hop TV drama, according to police.
Smollett, who plays a gay musician on "Empire," had pleaded not guilty to the charges against him on March 14.
"I've been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one," Smollett told reporters earlier on Tuesday outside a Chicago courthouse, where he posed for photos with supporters after a brief court hearing during which prosecutors abandoned the case.
Emanuel said Smollett's actions dragged Chicago's reputation through the mud and also would make it harder for victims of hate crimes to have their stories believed.
"How dare him? How dare him?" a visibly angry Emanuel said. "Is there no decency in this man?"
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)