A legal expert explains why the Empire actor is not exonerated and could still be charged or sued
Although prosecutors have dropped charges against Jussie Smollett after he was indicted on 16 counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly staging a hate crime against himself in January, Smollett has not been exonerated of the alleged conduct, nor does this mean there will be no further criminal charges brought against the Empire actor.
LA-based criminal defense attorney Alaleh Kamran, who is not associated with the case, tells PEOPLE that the dropped charges do not mean Smollett is innocent or exonerated.
“Exoneration means there was a finding of factual innocence and usually that’s done after a hearing in front of a judge with the victims and the witnesses,” she explains. “There’s testimony, and then the judge makes a finding that this person was innocent and should not have been arrested – that’s what exoneration means.”
She adds: “I think what happened is the prosecutor could not prove its case and they decided to cut their losses short right now before going any further and getting egg on their faces,” she says.
Kamran says the situation is “highly unusual” given the public scrutiny of the case and expects to see civil lawsuits filed very soon.
“At this point all that’s happened is the state is telling us they’re not going to prosecute him on criminal charges, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be civil lawsuits going both ways. Jussie can sue the complaining witnesses, the complaining witnesses can sue him,” she explains. “I’m sure there will be lawsuits because there’s damages. Jussie’s career has been destroyed, his name and reputation has been dragged through the mud, I would be surprised if he does not pull some kind of civil action to, at the minimum, clear his name.”
Kamran also notes that while the Chicago state prosecution will not be pursuing the case further, there is still an FBI investigation pending regarding the threatening letter Smollett allegedly received on the set of Empire.
“There is still a federal investigation pending and depending on whose fingerprints, DNA or whose identity is found on the letter, then there can be prosecution,” she says.
On Tuesday the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dropped all charges against Smollett.
“After reviewing all the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett’s volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case,” read the statement from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office obtained by PEOPLE.
The office did not address whether or not they still believe that Smollett staged the attack, but sent a follow-up statement of support for the investigation.
“We stand by the Chicago Police Department’s investigation and our approval of charges,” the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office said.
Meanwhile, Smollett’s attorneys, Tina Glandian and Patricia Brown Holmes celebrated the state’s decision in a statement and emphasized the innocence of their client.
“Today, all criminal charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and his record has been wiped clean of the filing of this tragic complaint against him,” they said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. “Jussie was attacked by two people he was unable to identify on January 29th. He was a victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator as a result of false and inappropriate remarks made to the public causing an inappropriate rush to judgment.”
Their statement continued: “Jussie and many others were hurt by these unfair and unwarranted actions,” it continued. “This entire situation is a reminder that there should never be an attempt to prove a case in the court of public opinion. This is wrong. It is a reminder that the victim, in this case Jussie, deserves dignity and respect. Dismissal of charges against the victim in this case was the only just result.”