Editor’s Note: Jussie Smollett was released from jail on March 16 pending the appeal of his conviction.
No sooner had a Chicago judge last week sentenced the disgraced actor Jussie Smollett to five months in jail than Black social media began to buzz with accusations of a racist double standard.
“I am not here to debate you on his innocence,” actress Taraji P. Henson tweeted in support of her friend and former castmate on the popular television series “Empire.”
“But we can agree that the punishment does not fit the crime,” Henson continued. “Emmett Till was brutally beat and ultimately murdered because of a lie, and none of the people involved with his demise spent one day in jail, even after Carolyn Bryant admitted that her claims were false.”
Others on social media relied on more recent examples, including former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter, who was convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting an unarmed motorist, Daunte Wright, during a 2021 traffic stop.
A Hennepin County judge last month deviated drastically from state guidelines in sentencing Potter to 16 months in prison and another eight on supervised release for a total of 24 months. This is six months less than Smollett’s sentence, despite the fact that no one was injured—let alone killed—as a result of Smollett’s insistence that he was the victim of a hate crime in 2019.
He was convicted last year of five counts of disorderly conduct, a Class 4 felony, the lowest grade of felony available under Illinois law.
But perhaps just as stunning as the stiff sentence meted out to Smollett was Cook County Judge James Linn’s dressing down of the actor during last week’s sentencing hearing. “You wanted to make yourself more famous,” Linn said. “And for a while, it worked. The lights were on you. You were actually throwing a national pity party for yourself.”
Compare Linn’s stinging rebuke of Smollett to Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu’s sympathetic portrayal of Potter, who is White, during her sentencing hearing last month.
“Officer Kimberly Potter was trying to do the right thing. Of all the jobs in public service, police officers have the most difficult one. They must make snap decisions under tense evolving and ever-changing circumstances. They risk their lives every single day in public service. Officer Potter made a mistake that ended tragically,” Chu said, pausing as she held back tears.
Continuing, she said: “She never intended to hurt anyone. Her conduct cries out for a sentence significantly below the guidelines.”
Denise Young, an African American woman who is a Chicago native, wrote on Facebook that Smollett’s sentencing reflected the failure of Whites, generally speaking, to acknowledge Blacks’ humanity while White suffering is paramount.
“So I just watched the sentencing of Jussie Smollett. The judge infantilized him, calling him arrogant, narcissistic, and an embarrassment. Juxtapose that with the sentencing of Brock Turner,” she wrote of the White Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexual assault on a semi-conscious woman near a frat house dumpster in 2016.
“The judge, in that case, cited his potential, noting that jail would only ruin his life,” wrote Young. “They received similar sentences. Brock, the White-boy rapist actually only served 90 days, half of his six-month sentence.”
Continuing, Young wrote: “[T]he only thing that judge did not have was Smollett’s genitals as a trophy. The similar punishments of Smollett and White-boy Rapist is secondary to how their humanity was handled. That was the fundamental point of my post.”
In a statement to the media, the Rev. Jesse Jackson senior echoed Young’s sentiments, writing:
“The sentence imposed by Cook County Judge James Linn on Thursday, March 10, 2022, sentencing Jussie Smollett to 150 days in Cook County jail for orchestrating a hate crime and lying to the police, 30 months’ probation and to pay the city of Chicago restitution of $120,000 and a $25,000 fine was excessive and unwarranted.
Judge Linn’s 45-minute explanation of the sentence indicated judicial bias and character assassination of Smollett. The judge made a number of inappropriate suppositions as to his perceptions of why Jussie may have committed the alleged hate crime against himself, for example he said, ‘…you were actually throwing a national pity party for yourself.’ ”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that most Blacks believe that Smollett did orchestrate the attack as a publicity stunt, but note that such crimes seldom merit jail time, either nationwide or in Illinois.
Indeed federal judges have complained that prosecutors have pursued lenient charges and no jail time for the vast majority of defendants accused of attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6 of last year.
But perhaps the most damning indictment came from Cook County’s African American State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that Smollett’s prosecution was politically– and racially –motivated:
“Given the reputational price Smollett paid, the $10,000 bond we held, and the fact that he’d never been accused of a violent crime, my office made the decision not to further pursue a criminal conviction. This story should have ended there, as thousands upon thousands of non-prosecuted cases do every day.
“Instead, taxpayers have since spent millions of dollars for the criminal prosecution of a hoax. Last year alone there were over 800 murders in Chicago. My administration has vacated over 177 wrongful convictions, 87 of those in the last 3 years. Rather than working collaboratively to stem rising crime or free the wrongly convicted, a small group of people hijacked the judicial system to enact what is best described as mob justice.
“In Smollett’s case, the mob was relentless, organized, and effective.”
Jon Jeter is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, who has also served stints at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Washington Post, among others.