Jussie Smollett and due process

On Feb. 21 the Chicago Police Department held a press conference to announce the arrest of Jussie Smollett for filing a false police report. The superintendent of the Chicago police department said, “This morning I come to you as a black man who spent his entire life living in the city of Chicago. I know racial divide that exists here. I know how hard it’s been for our city and our nation to come together. And I also know the disparities and I know the history.”

He went on to say, “I’m left hanging my head and asking why. Why would anyone, especially an African American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile? How can an individual who’s been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face by making these false claims?”

At the risk of offending all sides, since when is it the duty of the Chicago Police Department to try and convict Jussie Smollett of anything? It’s their job to investigate crimes and make arrests. They are not the body of criminal justice that determines guilt or innocence. The chief’s words may have come from his heart, and they may have reflected the raw feelings of millions of Americans, but his performance was not only bad form for a law enforcement officer — it was also fundamentally un-American. In that moment, in front of the cameras, he became a self-anointed judge, jury and executioner. That is never supposed to happen in a country where the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides: “No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The last time I checked, Mr. Smollett has not pleaded guilty to any crime. So how is it appropriate for the Chicago Police Department to say that they know what he did, why he did it, how he should be prosecuted and what the consequences are for his actions? Moreover, how are the chief’s personal feelings about race relevant to an ongoing investigation? Even if I can sympathize with his anger, no matter how immoral Smollett’s actions may be, making an arrest is not proving that someone is guilty of a crime. It is simply making an arrest. The ones who will ultimately decide Mr. Smollett’s guilt or innocence are 12 of his peers in a courtroom — not a group of cops at a podium in front of a national television audience.

Allow me to be perfectly clear: I would not be at all shocked if this man is found guilty of staging a fake assault. It certainly looks that way. But again, Mr. Smollett has not confessed to any crime. In fact, he has purported to be a victim of a crime. Whether he is lying or telling the truth, he still deserves his time in court. As much as I admire the fine detective work conducted by the Chicago Police Department to expose this alleged hoax, their own staged press conference went against the founding principles of our legal system. Even the most despised criminals deserve their day in court. It’s really that simple. If our country cannot live by its most basic tenets, then what is the point of having a Bill of Rights at all?

George Cassidy Payne lives in Rochester.

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