The Jussie Smollett Case Is Probably Far From Over, Analysts Say

After serving six days of a five-month sentence, Jussie Smollett walked out of Cook County Jail on Wednesday night, flanked by supporters who shepherded him into the back seat of an SUV.

Whether or not Mr. Smollett is forced to return to the jail in Chicago to complete his sentence is a question that is not likely to be answered for months — and possibly years.

The appellate court in Illinois, which ordered Mr. Smollett’s release, is not built for speed, and it was the anticipated delay in hearing his appeal that led the court order that Mr. Smollett should be free while it deliberates whether he was wrongly convicted of staging a fake hate crime. Several experts said proceedings of all sorts at the court typically take about a year or two years.

“This court will be unable to dispose of the instant appeal before the defendant would have served his entire sentence of incarceration,” according to the court’s order, which was signed by two of three justices on the panel.

Legal experts in Illinois differed on how common it is for defendants to be released on appeal when they had been ordered to serve relatively short jail sentences and their offenses were nonviolent, such as Mr. Smollett’s.

“Let’s say they reverse his conviction — he just did the 150 days for nothing,” said Gal Pissetzky, a criminal defense lawyer with experience on appellate cases.

The appeals process tends to drag on because of the time it takes the court to prepare voluminous transcripts from the trial and from pretrial proceedings and requests to delay proceedings.

There is also typically a backlog of cases waiting to be heard. In 2020, more than 3,300 cases were pending with the First District appellate court in Illinois, where Mr. Smollett’s case was assigned.

“There are a lot of cases — it’s always been that way,” said Joseph Lopez, a criminal defense attorney who has represented high-profile defendants like Drew Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his third wife. “And because he’s not in custody, they’re not going to be in a hurry to get to it.”

But experts said Mr. Smollett’s case could proceed faster than normal because it is so high profile and the special prosecutor handling the case, Dan K. Webb, is from a private law firm that is better equipped than a state prosecutor’s office to focus on a specific case and make the sort of timely filings that would accelerate a decision.

Dan K. Webb, the special prosecutor in the Smollett case, after the sentencing last week.Credit…Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times, via Associated Press

The defense’s efforts to secure Mr. Smollett’s release began immediately after Judge James Linn handed down the sentence last week in a blistering takedown of the actor that accused him of potentially undermining the credibility of true hate crime victims.

Though the defense asked for an immediate suspension of the sentence pending appeal, Judge Linn swiftly denied their request, citing what he characterized as the seriousness of Mr. Smollett’s offense — staging a hoax in which two men lightly assaulted him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs.

“The wheels of justice turn slowly, and sometimes the hammer of justice has to fall,” Judge Linn said in the courtroom. “And it’s falling right here, right now.”

Nenye Uche, Mr. Smollett’s lead lawyer, then quickly brought the matter to the higher court, the First District Appellate Court in Illinois, and Mr. Webb’s legal team argued against Mr. Smollett’s release, writing in court papers that according to the defense’s logic, every defendant who received a relatively short sentence would be released pending appeal and that the defense was taking “advantage” of Judge Linn’s lenient jail sentence.

Ultimately, judges have the discretion to decide these matters on a case-by-case basis. Experts say it is common for defendants to serve their entire sentence of incarceration before their appeal is resolved, something that critics often condemn as particularly unfair if the appellate court ends up overturning the trial court’s decision.

The Smollett case has already stretched on for more than three years, starting in January 2019, when Mr. Smollett reported to the police that two men had attacked him, hurled the slurs at him and placed a rope around his neck like a noose.

Two brothers, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, testified during the trial last year that Mr. Smollett had asked them to carry out the attack and instructed them in detail on how to do it. The defense argued that the brothers were lying and seeking to protect themselves from prosecution.

Judge Linn said at the sentencing hearing that Mr. Smollett’s decision to maintain his innocence on the stand was an aggravating factor that led him to hand down a sentence that included jail time, more than two years of probation, a $25,000 fine and more than $120,000 of restitution for the Chicago Police Department’s investigatory efforts. The defense argued that Mr. Smollett should not be incarcerated because his offense was the kind of low-level, nonviolent felony that often results in sentences of probation or community service.

The defense’s appeal will draw from many stages of the case’s long life, from its objection to the second indictment of Mr. Smollett after the state’s attorney’s office dropped the charges against him in 2019 to the way Judge Linn handled jury selection.

Two key arguments the defense is expected to make are that the appointment of a special prosecutor to reassess the case was never valid and that Mr. Smollett was subjected to double jeopardy because he surrendered his $10,000 bond and performed some community service in 2019.

Mr. Webb’s office has argued in the past that it was well within the court’s authority to appoint a special prosecutor and that Mr. Smollett was not subjected to double jeopardy because the original case had been dismissed.

“We’re very much looking forward to having a nonpolitical discourse with them that is intellectual, that’s understanding of the laws,” Heather Widell, one of Mr. Smollett’s lawyers, said of the appellate court at a news conference on Wednesday night.

Mr. Uche said at the news conference that when he told Mr. Smollett about the court’s decision to free him for now, the actor pressed his hands up against the glass separating him and his lawyer in jail, and said, “I nearly lost hope in our constitutional system.”

Mr. Uche has said that decision“says a lot about what the appellate court thinks of this case,” but, in the court’s brief order, the justices made no mention of whether they had considered the merits of the appeal in making their ruling.

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