An Open Letter to Jussie Smollett

Hello, Jussie. You don’t know me, and I doubt you’ll ever stumble across this letter. But I wanted to write this—actually, I needed to write this—for both myself and for you. You see, back when the story of your alleged assault began to unravel, I wrote a little something about why I didn’t believe it was necessary for you to go to prison even if you were guilty of staging the attack. I still feel that way today, but your stubbornness is making it increasingly difficult for folks like me to continue advocating on your behalf. 

As far as I’m concerned, prison should be reserved for violent offenders; repeat offenders; those who have who inflicted significant, lasting harm on innocent people; and those who pose a legitimate risk to public safety. You don’t fall into any of those categories. You haven’t committed any violent crimes, and you obviously aren’t a threat to the public. The hoax you allegedly perpetrated did exacerbate racial and political tensions for a period of time, but it would be quite the stretch to suggest that it caused any actual harm to any innocent people. And as far as I’m aware, you’ve never been charged with or convicted of any prior felony offenses. 

So why bother sending you to prison? To make an example out of you? To make it that much harder for you to piece your life and career back together after this ordeal has come to an end? I understand and agree with those who argue that the justice system should treat celebrities like you no differently than it treats ordinary citizens, but I object to the notion that a more equitable system necessitates a more aggressive approach to dealing with the rich and famous. If it were up to me, I’d push the system in the other direction, making it more charitable towards every person at every socioeconomic level.

In other words, I support a more merciful system, not a more punitive one. The problem, Jussie, is that this whole situation stinks to high heaven. The evidence against you is overwhelming, but city prosecutors decided to drop all charges against you despite your unwillingness to come clean and apologize. This happened after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx was put in touch with your family by former Obama administration official Tina Tchen, which in turn led to Foxx’s recusal from your case. But that recusal didn’t stop Foxx from texting her misgivings about your prosecution to First Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Magats, the man in charge of handling your case. From the outside looking in, it sure does look like you successfully leveraged your fame and influence to sidestep justice, and that grinds a lot of people’s gears.

I can’t say that I totally blame them. 

You see, there are still many people in this society—especially conservative-minded people—who equate mercy with an absence of accountability. Your story gives credence to that concern. It legitimizes the suspicion that progressive-minded reformists are motivated more by a desire to rig the system in their favor than a desire to improve the system for everyone. And the timing couldn’t be worse. The push for criminal justice reform has finally gone mainstream, as evidenced by President’s Trump signing of the First Step Act. But now your story is being used as a talking point by right-wing critics who propose a return to the days of tough-on-crime policing, and I’m guessing that doesn’t sit well with you.

I know this isn’t the legacy you want to leave behind, so why not just apologize and promise to try to make amends? What is it that you’re afraid of? That you won’t get a second chance? Michael Vick got one. So did Mel Gibson. Chris Brown got multiple chances, and he doesn’t even seem all that sorry for his past transgressions! You’ll get one, too, and you’ll probably get it a whole lot sooner if you own the truth about what happened to you and start working on the difficult but worthwhile task of redeeming yourself. 

Of course, if you really are innocent—and I must admit that it is possible, though extraordinarily unlikely, that you are—then please keep fighting the good fight. I certainly wouldn’t want you to take the fall for a crime you didn’t commit. There would be no justice in that. But if you are indeed guilty of trying to pull one over on the public, it’s time to come clean and say you’re sorry. You won’t be alone. There will be plenty of people ready to back you up, myself included. I’m a big believer in second chances, as are many other folks out there. And I guarantee you that if you’re finally ready to step up and close the book on all this drama, we’ll be ready and waiting to cheer you on as you set out on the road to redemption. 

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