John McWhorter: What the Jussie Smollett story reveals
In response, the criminal-defense attorney Scott Greenfield pointed out that lots of reasons other than celebrity could explain the outcome. For example, prosecutors might have concluded that Smollett was a first-time offender with strong community ties and a low likelihood of recidivism, that he physically harmed no one, and that he has already suffered collateral consequences.
As a proponent of efforts to decrease incarceration rates, I would oppose jail time for this nonviolent crime, even given a conviction. Better to impose a fine and community service, alongside the embarrassment of getting caught and the reputational hit, than to pay to imprison someone who poses no public danger.
Still, so long as hate-crime laws are on the books, there is a strong case for treating hate-crime hoaxes as among the most serious nonviolent crimes. The standard case for hate-crime laws was well-articulated years ago by Michael Lieberman, the Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League:
Hate crimes … may effectively intimidate other members of the victim’s community, leaving them feeling terrorized, isolated, vulnerable, and unprotected by the law. By making the victim’s community fearful, angry, and suspicious of other groups—and of the power structure that is supposed to protect them—these incidents can damage the fabric of our society and fragment communities.
Anyone who supports the existence of hate-crime laws based on that logic should recognize that these ill effects manifest regardless of whether a publicized hate crime occurred or was the creation of a fabulist. A bigot and a hoaxer cause the same harm to everyone save the primary victim.
Adam Serwer: The lesson of the Jussie Smollett case
The Smollett case certainly prompted a lot of social-media posts by Americans professing fear and distress at the notion of a bigoted assault on the actor. If prosecutors possessed solid evidence that Smollett did sow terror, anger, and fear among black people and gay men, it seems perverse to conclude the matter without an admission of guilt and a public acknowledgment of the damage done. Publicizing those harms might deter others from committing the same crime.
Conversely, if prosecutors lack proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Smollett perpetrated those harms, they ought to say as much out of fairness to the actor.
The criminal-justice system is full of cases in which no satisfying answer is ever available to the public, reflecting imperfect processes in a messy, often unsatisfying world. That is the best that can be said of this strange conclusion to a strange case.