Special prosecutor to review actor Jussie Smollett’s case: judge

FILE PHOTO: Actor Jussie Smollett appears at a hearing for judge assignment with his attorney Tina Glandian (L), at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., March 14, 2019. E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A judge in Chicago on Friday named a special prosecutor to probe the case involving former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett’s allegation that he was the victim of a racist attack, which authorities have ruled a hoax.

Cook County Judge Michael Toomin appointed former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb to investigate the case.

Smollett, who is black, gay and best known for his role on the Fox Television hip-hop drama “Empire,” told police on Jan. 29 that two masked men threw a noose around his neck and poured chemicals on him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs and expressing support for Republican U.S. President Donald Trump.

Toomin said Webb, who won a conviction of one of former President Ronald Reagan’s advisers for his role in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal and now serves as co-executive chairman of one of Chicago’s largest law firms, was “guided by a strong moral compass and integrity.”

Former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb takes the oath of special prosecutor during a status hearing concerning actor Jussie Smollett at the Leighton Criminal Court building in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. August 23, 2019. Antonio Perez/Pool via REUTERS.

Former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb takes the oath of special prosecutor during a status hearing concerning actor Jussie Smollett at the Leighton Criminal Court building in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. August 23, 2019. Antonio Perez/Pool via REUTERS.

“We are honored to play a role in helping, as Judge Toomin said in a recent order, to restore the public’s confidence in the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Webb said in Cook County Circuit Court on Friday.

Webb said he intends to request a special grand jury to hear evidence on whether any people or offices previously handling the case had committed wrongdoing and whether there are further grounds to prosecute Smollett.

A month after Smollett made the allegation, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx charged him with filing a false police report and accused him of paying $3,500 to two men to stage the attack to generate public sympathy.

Smollett has denied staging the attack.

In March, to the shock and dismay of local politicians and police officials, Foxx’s office dropped the charges, saying an agreement by Smollett to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

Foxx recused herself from the case because of conversations she had about the incident with one of Smollett’s relatives.

Smollett was written out of the final two episodes of “Empire” this season after he was charged with staging the hate crime.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone and Paul Simao)

Stopping America’s next hate-crime killers on social media is no easy task

By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) – The pattern is clear: Hate-filled manifestos posted on websites populated by white supremacists, followed by gun attacks against blacks, Jews, Muslims, or Latin American immigrants.

In some cases, the killers use their internet posts to praise previous attacks by other white nationalists. And after new assaults, the manifestos get passed around, feeding the cycle of propaganda and violence.

Following the racially-motivated attack that killed 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, President Donald Trump said he wants police to do more to stop extremists who are active online before they can turn to murder.

But identifying and stopping the extremists who plan to launch an attack is much easier said than done.

Law enforcement experts say that the constitutional right of free speech means police cannot arrest someone simply on the basis of extremist rants online, unless they make a specific threat.

“You couldn’t just open a case on the words,” said Dave Gomez, a retired FBI agent who has worked on cases of both international and domestic terrorism.

“Posting something like that on the internet doesn’t harm anybody,” he said, adding that police can only successfully investigate a white supremacist when you can “connect his words to an overt act.”

The White House will discuss violent extremism online with representatives from a number of internet and technology companies on Friday, according to a White House spokesman.

Social media companies are reluctant to spy on or censor their users, though increasingly they are responding to demands that they take down obvious incitements to violence. And civil rights groups warn that tighter monitoring can lead to unconstitutional abuses of power

Another former FBI agent, who asked not to be identified, said closer monitoring of extremists’ websites would anyway be unlikely to prevent new mass shootings.

“There is not enough manpower. There is not enough technology to properly monitor the internet,” he said. “This is the number one thing we always say in law enforcement: ‘You can’t stop crazy. You can’t even predict crazy.’”

Trump said after the mass shootings last weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, that he would ask the Justice Department to work with local, state and federal agencies as well as social media companies “to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”

Even before those attacks, The FBI in early July requested bids for a contractor to help it detect national security threats by trawling through social media sites.

“The use of social media platforms by terrorist groups, domestic threats, foreign intelligence services, and criminal organizations to further their illegal activity creates a demonstrated need for tools to properly identify the activity and react appropriately,” the FBI said in its request.

PRESSURE

Top law enforcement and domestic security officials from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand met with leading social media and internet companies in London last week, and pushed them to help authorities track suspicious users.

The government officials noted in an agenda paper for the meeting that some companies “deliberately design their systems in a way that precludes any form of access to content, even in cases of the most serious crimes.”

“Tech companies should include mechanisms in the design of their encrypted products and services whereby governments, acting with appropriate legal authority, can obtain access to data in a readable and usable format,” the agenda paper said.

A final statement from the meeting said little about encryption, however, and neither company nor government officials talked about what was discussed.

Facebook and Microsoft confirmed they attended but Google, which was invited, did not respond to a request for comment. Other attendees included Roblox, Snap and Twitter, the statement said.

FBI agents say that broad surveillance powers enacted by Congress in the wake of the Sept., 11, 2001 attacks helped them track international terrorist groups and stop people with links to foreign groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State before they could carry out crimes.

But they key law criminalizing “material support” for terrorism does not apply to investigations or prosecutions of domestic terrorists, such as violent white supremacists, that commit hate crimes.

This week, the FBI Agents Association called on Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime in order to give agents more tools.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which promotes internet civil liberties, said the sheer amount of users posting aggressive content online makes it almost impossible to identify and track the people who pose an actual threat.

“Even though it seems like there is another mass shooting every week, if you are looking at the number of mass shooters versus the total population, it’s still a tiny, tiny number which means this is still a very rare event,” said Jeremy Gillula, the group’s tech products director. “It’s like trying to predict where lightning is going to strike.”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Two Texas shooting victims die in hospital, raising death toll to 22

People pray during a vigil a day after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, U.S. August 4, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

By Julio-Cesar Chavez

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) – The death toll rose to 22 people on Monday in a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, increasing with two deaths in a hospital days after a spate of shooting sprees, El Paso Police said on Twitter.

Two weekend gun massacres prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to condemn white supremacy.

Texas prosecutors charged a man with capital murder for the massacre in the heavily Hispanic border city that initially had claimed 20 lives.

Two victims died in the hospital on Monday morning, raising the grim total rose to 22, El Paso Police said on Twitter.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said Saturday’s rampage appeared to be a hate crime and federal prosecutors called it domestic terrorism. Police cited a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto posted online shortly before the shooting, which they attributed to the suspect, Patrick Crusius, as evidence that the bloodshed was racially motivated.

A Texas prosecutor said the state will seek the death penalty against Crusius if he is found guilty.

It was the second of three separate public shooting sprees carried out in the United States in the span of a week. The dense cluster of massacres prompted fresh cries of alarm in a country accustomed to reports of young men gunning down strangers.

“In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” Trump said from the White House, calling the gunman “wicked” and criticizing blaming the internet and violent video games for fostering violence.

“It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence,” Trump said, a day after Democratic candidates for next year’s presidential election called for stricter gun laws and accused the president of stoking racial tensions.

U.S. gun control advocates have noted that the internet and video games are popular in many other countries where mass shootings are virtually unknown, in part because it is much harder to get a gun than in the United States.

Trump also proposed making it easier and quicker to stop those deemed as having certain forms of mental illness or being a risk to public safety from having guns.

State prosecutors have charged Crusius, a 21-year-old white man, with capital murder, according to the County of El Paso’s state court website. The single murder charge is likely a legal place holder to keep Crusius in custody until further charges can be filed for each of the dead and the wounded.

His grandparents, with whom Crusius had recently been living, said they were devastated by the attack.

“He lived with us in our house in Allen, Texas, while he attended Collin College,” the statement said, read aloud by a family friend to reporters outside the home on Sunday. “He moved out of our house six weeks ago, and has spent a few nights here while we were out of town.”

It was unclear if Crusius has a lawyer or when a bond hearing or other court appearances will occur.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement on Sunday the attack “underscores the continued threat posed by domestic violent extremists and perpetrators of hate crimes.”

The agency said it remains concerned that more U.S.-based extremists could become inspired by these and previous high-profile attacks to engage in similar acts of violence.

The U.S. attorney for the western district of Texas, John Bash, said federal authorities were treating the El Paso massacre as a case of domestic terrorism.

“And we’re going to do what we do to terrorists in this country, which is to deliver swift and certain justice,” he told a news conference on Sunday. He said the attack appeared “to be designed to intimidate a civilian population, to say the least.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray told a congressional panel on July 23 that the bureau has recorded about 100 arrests of domestic terrorism suspects in the preceding nine months and that most investigations of that kind involve some form of white supremacy.

BACK-TO-BACK SHOOTINGS

The Texas rampage was followed just 13 hours later by another mass shooting, and came a week after a man shot dead three people at a California garlic festival before he was killed by police.

In Dayton, Ohio a gunman in body armor and a mask killed nine people in less than a minute and wounded 27 others in the downtown historic district before he was shot dead by police.

Trump has frequently derided many asylum seekers and other immigrants coming across the U.S. southern border as liars and criminals. At a political rally he held in May, after asking the crowd what could be done about immigrants coming in illegally, Trump smiled and joked after someone in the crowd yelled back: “Shoot them!”

El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said the suspect was cooperating with investigators.

“He basically didn’t hold anything back,” Allen said at Sunday’s news conference, but declined to elaborate.

Police said the suspect opened fire with a rifle on shoppers, many of them bargain-hunting for back-to-school supplies, then surrendered to officers who confronted him outside the store.

Crusius comes from Allen, Texas, a Dallas suburb some 650 miles (1,046 km) east of El Paso, which lies along the Rio Grande across the U.S.-Mexico border from Ciudad Juarez.

A four-page statement posted on 8chan, an online message board often used by extremists and believed to have been written by the suspect, called the Walmart attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

It also expressed support for the gunman who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.

El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, together with the neighboring city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, form a metropolitan border area of some 2.5 million residents constituting the largest bilingual, bi-national population in North America.

(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Jonathan Allen in New York, Keith Coffman in Denver, Tim Reid in Las Vegas, Mark Hosenball in London, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Daniel Trotta, Barbara Goldberg and Matthew Lavietes in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Frances Kerry and Nick Zieminski)

U.S. prosecutors weigh death penalty for accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter

Police vehicles are deployed near the vicinity of the home of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers' home in Baldwin borough, suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 27, 2018. REUTERS/John Altdorfer


(Reuters) – The case of Robert Bowers, the man accused of massacring 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last year was set to return to a federal courtroom on Thursday, as prosecutors weigh whether to pursue the death penalty against him.

Bowers, 46, is accused of bursting into the synagogue on Oct. 27 with a semi-automatic rifle and three handguns and shouting “all Jews must die” as he fired on congregants gathered for a Sabbath service.

Bowers has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh to a 63-count indictment. Some of the charges, including murder as a hate crime, can carry the death penalty.

At Thursday’s hearing, prosecutors may discuss whether they will seek the death penalty. The session is a routine hearing to review the status of the case.

The United States is seeing a rise in the number of hate crimes and the number of hate groups, according to separate reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One of Bowers’ attorneys, death penalty specialist Judith Clarke, said at his last hearing that the defense hoped to settle without trial. A negotiated plea deal could allow Bowers to avoid facing the risk of execution.

It was not clear whether Bowers would be present at the hearing.

Prosecutors say Bowers frequently posted anti-Semitic comments on right-wing social-media websites, including a post on the morning of the shooting in which he decried the work of a U.S. Jewish charity, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Among those killed in the attack were a 97-year-old woman, two brothers in their 50s and a married couple in their 80s. Two civilians and five police officers were wounded before the gunman was shot by police and surrendered.

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Bowers filed a motion to the court through his lawyers, which Judge Donetta Ambrose allowed to be sealed from public view per Bowers’ request.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman)

Accused California gunman pleads not guilty in synagogue murder, mosque arson

A crowd watches on screen the funeral for Lori Gilbert-Kaye, the sole fatality of the Saturday synagogue shooting at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 29, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

By Jennifer McEntee

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A 19-year-old man accused of killing one worshipper and wounding three others in a shooting spree in a California synagogue pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to murder and attempted-murder charges in an attack prosecutors are treating as a hate crime.

John Earnest, arrested shortly after Saturday’s bloodshed at the Chabad of Poway synagogue north of San Diego, also pleaded not guilty to a single count of arson on a house of worship stemming from a nearby mosque that was set on fire in March.

Appearing behind a glass partition for his arraignment in San Diego County Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon, Earnest stood expressionless and spoke faintly as he gave one-word answers to procedural questions put to him by the judge.

The lanky defendant – a nursing student enrolled at California State University at San Marcos – wore dark-rimmed glasses with his hair combed straight forward.

Ordering him to remain held without bail, Judge Joseph Brannigan said Earnest would pose “an obvious and extraordinary risk” to the public if he were to be released pending trial.

The proceeding was attended by six Hasidic Jewish men who sat in the front row of the courtroom, dressed in the traditional dark garb of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox faithful.

Authorities said Earnest stalked into the Poway synagogue during Sabbath prayers on the last day of the week-long Jewish Passover holiday and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing 60-year-old worshipper Lori Gilbert-Kaye

Three others were wounded in the attack, including the rabbi, who was shot in the hand and lost an index finger.

John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court during an arraignment hearing in San Diego, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. Nelvin C. Cepeda/Pool via REUTERS

John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court during an arraignment hearing in San Diego, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. Nelvin C. Cepeda/Pool via REUTERS

RAMBLING MANIFESTO

The gunman, whose weapon apparently jammed, was chased out of the temple by a former Army sergeant in the congregation, then sped away in a car, escaping an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent who shot at the getaway vehicle but missed the suspect. Earnest pulled over and surrendered to police soon afterward.

Authorities said later they believed Earnest was the author of a rambling, violently anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim “manifesto” found posted on the internet under his name.

In it, the writer claimed responsibility for a pre-dawn arson fire on March 24 that damaged the Islamic Center of Escondido, a town about 15 miles (24 km) north of Poway, and professed to have drawn his inspiration from the gunman who killed 50 people at two mosques earlier that month in New Zealand.

Saturday’s bloodshed near San Diego came six months to the day after 11 worshippers were fatally shot at a Pittsburgh synagogue in a massacre that ranks as the deadliest ever on American Jewry. The accused gunman in that attack was arrested.

Authorities said Earnest had no prior criminal record.

Besides the charge of committing arson at a place of worship, he is charged with one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder. The criminal complaint, filed on Monday, also alleges the synagogue shooting was perpetrated as a hate crime. His public defender entered not guilty pleas to all charges on his behalf during Tuesday’s hearing.

If convicted, he would face life in prison without parole, or the death penalty, the district attorney’s office said.

District Attorney Summer Stephan told reporters afterward Earnest had legally purchased the murder weapon, although current California law generally prohibits rifles and shotguns from being sold to anyone under 21. The state’s legal age limit for such firearms was raised from 18 starting this year.

In addition to the murder weapon, Stephan said, police found five loaded ammunition magazines and another 50 rounds of bullets in Earnest’s vehicle when he was arrested.

(Reporting by Jennifer McEntee in San Diego; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)

Police examine motive of man accused of deadly California synagogue attack

A car, allegedly used by the gunman who killed one at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, is pictured, few hundred feet from the Interstate 15 off-ramp north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 27, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Police were examining the motive on Monday of the man accused of a deadly shooting at a synagogue in Southern California, after determining the 19-year-old gunman acted alone.

The gunman walked into the Chabad of Poway in suburban San Diego on Saturday and killed one woman and wounded three other people inside, using an assault-style rifle, police said.

The Poway mayor over the weekend called the shooting a hate crime. The accused gunman, John T. Earnest, appears to be the author of an online manifesto who claimed to have previously set fire to a mosque and drawn inspiration from last month’s mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people.

Saturday’s bloodshed in Poway came at the end of the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover and unfolded six months to the day after 11 worshippers were killed by a gunman who stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Earnest, who has been held without bail, is scheduled to appear in a San Diego court on Wednesday to face a charge of murder and three counts of attempted murder, according to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department website.

The gunman is believed to have carried out the shooting without support from anyone else, San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore said in a statement on Sunday.

“We are continuing to explore every investigative avenue to bring out all the facts in this case,” Gore said.

Earnest fled in a car as an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent, who had been at the synagogue, fired at his vehicle. The teenager later called police to surrender.

Authorities are investigating Earnest’s possible involvement in the March 24 pre-dawn arson fire at the Islamic Center of Escondido, a town about 15 miles (24 km) north of Poway, Gore said.

The slain victim, Lori Kaye, was a founding member of the Chabad of Poway congregation, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was among the three wounded victims, told reporters.

Another survivor, Israel Dahan, whose 8-year-old daughter was wounded, told Israel Radio on Sunday that the attacker’s gun jammed.

Worshipper Oscar Stewart, 51, rushed the gunman and chased him outside before another person, the off duty Border Patrol agent, opened fire, Gore said.

Stewart is a U.S. Army veteran and works as an electrician, the Los Angeles Times reported.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Son of sheriff’s deputy charged with burning three Louisiana black churches

By Peter Szekely

(Reuters) – The son of a sheriff’s deputy was charged with burning down three predominately black churches in southern Louisiana over the past two weeks, officials said on Thursday, saying they acted quickly out of concern he would strike again.

Holden Matthews, 21, a white resident of St. Landry Parish, the county where the fires occurred, was charged with three counts of simple arson on religious buildings, each count of which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years, Louisiana Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said.

“We are extremely, unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes on these three churches,” Browning told a news briefing in Opelousas, Louisiana, about 60 miles (97 km) west of Baton Rouge.

Matthews, the son of Deputy Roy Matthews of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, was taken into custody late Wednesday, about 12 hours after he was identified as a suspect, Browning said.

“We felt that other crimes were imminent,” he said. “In an abundance of public safety, we quickly secured warrants and took him into custody.”

The three churches destroyed by the fires have mostly black congregations, raising authorities’ suspicion that the fires may be racially motivated hate crimes. No federal hate crime charges have been filed against Matthews so far.

Noting the history of black church burnings in the South, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said the current episode was “especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear.”

Edwards said the crimes appeared to be unrelated to the March 31 burning of a predominantly white church in another parish.

While investigators were still exploring motives, Browning said that Matthews had “a relationship with a type of music called black metal,” an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. Black metal has an association with church burnings in other parts of the world, he said.

Officials, including those from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said the investigation was ongoing.

The fires set between March 26 and April 4 destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas.

St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said he believed his deputy was unaware of Holden Matthews’ involvement in the fires.

“Roy Matthews is one of my best friends, a great deputy,” Guidroz said.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Chicago will sue actor Jussie Smollett after he refuses to pay for police overtime

FILE PHOTO: Actor Jussie Smollett makes a court appearance at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., March 14, 2019. E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Chicago will sue actor Jussie Smollett for the costs of police overtime spent investigating his claims that he was the victim of a hate crime, which prosecutors say were false, a city official said on Thursday.

The lawsuit was being prepared after Smollett, 36, refused a demand by the city for $130,000, said Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Law.

“Mr. Smollett has refused to reimburse the City of Chicago for the cost of police overtime spent investigating his false police report on January 29, 2019, McCaffrey said. “The Law Department is now drafting a civil complaint that will be filed in the Circuit Court of Cook Country.”

Smollett, who is black and gay, touched off a social media fire storm by telling police on Jan. 29 that two apparent supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump struck him, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach over him.

But the actor, best known for his role as a gay musician on the Fox Television hip-hop drama “Empire,” was charged in February with staging the incident himself and filing a false police report.

Last week prosecutors dropped all charges against Smollett, infuriating police and outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Prosecutors said they stood by the accusation but that an agreement by Smollett to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

The case file was sealed by a Chicago judge, which critics suggested was evidence of a cover-up.

The actor’s criminal defense attorney, Mark Geragos, could not be reached for comment.

On Monday, some 300 people, including off-duty Chicago police officers, took to the streets to protest, calling on Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to resign over her handling of the case.

Foxx, who recused herself from the case before charges were filed, citing conversations she had with one of his relatives, has defended her actions and those of her prosecutors.

Smollett was written out of the final two episodes of “Empire” this season after he was charged with staging the hate crime. Fox executives have not said if he will return should the show be renewed for another year.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)

Chicago mayor demands answers after Smollett hoax charges dropped

FILE PHOTO: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during an interview at City Hall in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Lott/File Photo

(Reuters) – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Wednesday he wanted to “find out what happened” to cause prosecutors to abruptly drop charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, who was accused of staging a hoax hate crime to boost his career.

The saga began in January when the actor, who is black and gay, said two men had attacked him on a Chicago street, putting a noose around his neck and shouting racist and homophobic slurs.

Prosecutors on Feb. 21 accused him of paying two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, $3,500 to carry out an attack they called a hoax to advance his career but abruptly dropped the charges on Tuesday.

“Let’s get to the bottom of this,” Emanuel said in an ABC News interview. “Let’s find out what happened.”

Emanuel said Smollett had “abused” the city of Chicago, a day after the actor walked out of court saying he had been vindicated in insisting he had not staged a racist assault against him in January.

Smollett, who plays a gay musician on Fox’s hip-hop TV drama “Empire,” had been charged with 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct alleging he gave false accounts of an attack on him to police investigators.

On Tuesday, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office said it stood by its accusation against Smollett but was dropping all the charges, saying the actor’s prior community service and his agreeing to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

“The state’s attorney’s office is saying he’s not exonerated, he actually did commit this hoax,” Emanuel said in the ABC interview. “He’s saying he’s innocent and his words are true. They better get their stories straight, because this is making fools of all us.”

Chicago’s chief prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, defended her office’s decision in an interview with WBEZ on Wednesday as proportionate to the charges.

Foxx had recused herself from the case prior to Smollett’s being charged because of conversations she had about the incident with one of Smollett’s relatives, according to her spokesman.

“There’s some people who were never gonna be satisfied unless Mr. Smollett spent many nights in prison, and then there were others who believed that the charging of 16 counts of disorderly conduct was excessive,” she said in the interview. She said the charges Smollett faced were unlikely to have led to a prison sentence if he had been convicted.

“What I can tell you is that most people who come through the criminal justice system don’t give up $10,000 of their hard-earned money, or engage in volunteer services connected with an alleged offense, without viewing that as a way of being held accountable,” she said.

Smollett initially earned widespread sympathy from celebrities and some Democratic presidential candidates over his account of the alleged assault.

The Chicago Police Department released what it said were all its records from the case on Wednesday, totaling 61 pages, with some names and other personal details redacted.

The records conformed with the information included in court filings, including summaries of interviews with the Osundairo brothers who said Smollett gave them a $3,500 check and $100 in cash to buy the rope, ski masks, gloves and red baseball caps used in the attack.

On Tuesday, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson also criticized the prosecutor’s decision, saying it did not serve justice.

Smollett had pleaded not guilty to the charges, and told reporters on Tuesday he had been “truthful and consistent” in maintaining his innocence.

His lawyers said he hopes to move on with his acting career, but it remains unclear whether he will return to “Empire” after being written out of the last two episodes of the most recent season.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Richard Chang)

Deadly blast in Texas believed linked to earlier explosion

An FBI agent exits her car after arriving at the scene of an explosion near north Galindo street. Police investigators are at the home where a 17-year-old boy was killed and a woman injured in a package bomb explosion in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Flo

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – A package bomb that killed a Texas teenager and injured a woman on Monday was believed to be linked to a deadly blast in the state’s capital city earlier this month, according to police, who were also investigating a third explosion that injured one.

Austin police said Monday’s package bomb that killed a 17-year-old, as well as a March 2 explosion that killed a man, were being investigated as homicides. The two homes that received the packages belonged to African-Americans.

“We cannot rule out that hate crime is at the core of this but we are not saying that that is the cause,” Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told a news conference.

Isiah Guerrero, 15, gives an interview to the media in the neighbourhood of the scene of an explosion. Police investigators are at the home where a 17-year-old boy was killed and a woman injured in a package bomb explosion in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Flores

Police said they responded to a second explosion of a package on Monday at another home in which a woman was injured. A police spokeswoman was unable to confirm if it was related to the other two explosions.

Monday’s blasts were in homes about 4 miles (6 km) apart in east Austin, while the March 2 blast occurred at house in the city’s northeast Harris Ridge neighborhood.

The March 2 blast, which killed a 39-year-old man, was initially investigated as a suspicious death but is now being treated as a homicide.

In the deadly blast on Monday, the 17-year-old resident found a package in front of his house in the morning and brought it into the kitchen, where it exploded, Manley said. The woman, in her 40s, was taken to an area hospital with injuries that were not thought to be life-threatening.

“We are looking at these incidents as being related,” Manley said, adding that federal investigators have joined the case.

After the March 2 explosion, Austin police said they had no indication the blast was related to terrorism.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Andrew Hay; Editing by Susan Thomas and Tom Brown)