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Dennis Marek: When can we get treated like a celebrity?

April 6, 2019

We all hear of accused criminals “taking a plea agreement.” Are plea agreements a fair way to deal with a criminal case, and when does it become a criminal act itself?

That seems to be a question many have been asking. On the back page of the USA Today on March 28 was an article about James Fields Jr. and a plea deal that occurred in Charlottesville, Va. Here was a neo-Nazi, convicted of murder in a car attack on an anti-racism activist after a white nationalist rally. He pleaded guilty to 29 hate-crime felonies. Under the plea agreement, a 30th felony was dropped without any trials. Why was this last crime important? The number 30 made him eligible for the death penalty.

Here was a no-name hater who could have been put to death after years of trials and appeals. The state saved money by having him plead guilty to 29 felonies and for him to forgo these trials. The criminal saved his life. Perhaps that is understandable, especially for those who oppose the death penalty in any cases.

Recently, felony charges have been brought in California in the cases of buying one’s child admission into a favored university. These are the children of the rich and famous. What kind of plea agreements will be reached in those cases? My bet would be although the charges are felonies, some fines and community service arrangements will be meted out. These are the privileged few. They have powers the rest of us do not. Things will happen. I will bet none of the parents does time in a penitentiary.

Which brings us to the Chicago case of Jussie Smollett. Who is he? Many of us who are not big TV aficionados never watched his show, “Empire.” Then, this star of the show is attacked and beaten by two thugs because he is black, gay and perhaps a celebrity. National news. Wow, how sad for the guy.

Wait. It was a setup. The thugs are two brothers who worked on the set of “Empire.” Once again, the stupidity of criminals comes to light. The authorities have police videos and private security cameras along with rideshare records to identify the two brothers as the assailants.

Within two weeks they are arrested. At first, they refused to cooperate with police, but the brothers finally “confessed” Smollett paid them to stage the attack in hopes of boosting his profile and salary.

Well, that makes sense. Say anything to get out of the assault charges. Blame it on the victim. But wait again. They could prove it with bank records and text messages between Smollett and themselves. The scene changes again. The fraud was out there, and Smollett is arrested and charged with 16 felonies, only 14 less than the murder from Virginia. Here is a case of major violations of our laws in Illinois. Our police have solved a huge fraud and have the video and text proof. Soon, a trial and some serious punishment. End of the story.

Let’s stop for a moment and discuss punishment for serious crimes. Most Americans have no idea about the punishment side of the criminal law system. When is it the death penalty? When is it a penitentiary or a work farm? When is it probation or work release? When is the mere payment of a monetary amount sufficient?

Historically, when people commit a somewhat serious offense, they are sent to prison. The idea of a prison sentence met two theories. Keep bad people off the streets, and show the rest of the population that when one does something bad, his or her freedom is revoked.

On the other hand, for very minor offenses one could receive a reprimand, a fine, or perhaps probation with a condition of not to do anything else bad. Our current system in Illinois has eliminated the death penalty. It has divided crimes into two major divisions: felonies and misdemeanors. Traffic offenses are more often treated as minor violations. But the theory of punishment remains the same. Bad people doing really bad things should go to jail whether they are rich or poor, celebrities or common folks.

That changed in Chicago with Smollett. The new Cook County States Attorney, Kim Foxx, after sharing too much directly with the Smollett family, decided to recuse herself from the case and turn it over to the FBI. Neither happened. Then, her staff decided to dismiss all the felonies, keep his $10,000 bond for expenses and give him two days of community service. Then, it is revealed Foxx said she wanted to turn the investigation over to the FBI, but she didn’t really recuse herself and left it up to her staff. Do you suppose this had anything to do with what their boss had done for the family?

Not to quit there, we were told the judge and the lawyers agreed to seal the entire records and police file. Then, we heard the judge wasn’t in on the deal, just the lawyers. The Chicago chief of police later stated he knew none of this.

Looking at the case from the outside (which is all we have because they sealed the file), one can assume some things. First, there was a huge hole in the state’s case. That doesn’t seem likely, however, with videos and texts and cooperation from the assailants. We only can be left with the idea some people can do something that breaks a lot of laws, but because there was no other party hurt by the antics, that person gets a pass. The mayor said the costs were more than $100,000.

If that is true, all the people who bought their children into a college should walk as well. No one was hurt. The schools got extra money. That is true if we forget about the kids who got bumped from admissions by these rich and famous folks. All crimes have victims.

Finally, what has this done to show the people of America we will not tolerate the breaking of our laws, and those who do will be seriously punished as a warning to the others? Right, $10,000 for a rich man and two days of menial labor. Some days, money and fame lead to a bypass of equal justice under the law for all. Some days, my justice system just sucks.