Jussie Smollett was, until a few weeks ago, best known as an actor on the TV show “Empire.” Now, he’s known as the fellow who may have lied about a hate crime.
It’s still too early to know what actually happened on Jan. 29 on the Chicago street where Smollett, who is black and gay, told police he was attacked by two men. Smollett claims the alleged attackers hurled homophobic and racial slurs at him, put a rope around his neck, and poured a chemical substance on him. In the days following the incident, public support for Jollett swelled, even as some questioned the veracity of his claims when detectives struggled to find video recordings of the alleged attack.
Then, last week, two suspects were detained but then released by police, who now say the trajectory of the investigation has “shifted.” Media outlets, including CNN, report that the two men have told investigators they were paid to take part in a hoax.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, but this incident has triggered a renewed focus on fabricated narratives and the very real harm they cause.
When someone lies about being a victim, it makes it that much harder for the next person to be believed. That’s not debatable. It’s just the truth.
Let’s look at some famous examples.
In 1987, a young black woman named Tawana Brawley claimed she’d been raped by four white men, including a police officer and a prosecutor. High-profile advocates like Al Sharpton championed her cause, and the country was embroiled in a controversy along racial lines. A grand jury later exonerated the accused men, and though Brawley continues to maintain she told the truth, no one who read the report or researched the case believes she was a victim. It was one of the most high-profile hate-crime hoaxes in recent memory.
Because the men accused by Brawley were exonerated, the case made some Americans skeptical of accusations based on race even when there are legitimate reasons to believe that something might have happened.
Skeptics can always point to her case and say, “If she lied, maybe this other person did too.” That is the saddest part of a lie, the power it has to make us suspect that everyone in a similar situation is less likely to be telling the truth.
And it doesn’t stop with alleged hate crimes.
There was was the Duke University lacrosse case where three student-athletes were falsely accused of rape. And the famously retracted Rolling Stone story about how the University of Virginia mishandled a student’s gang-rape allegations against a fraternity. And Columbia University’s infamous “Mattress Girl,” who carried a mattress around campus on her back even though her alleged rapist was cleared of all charges.
It’s because of past false allegations that many people - myself included - did not believe Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Brett Kavanaugh, at the time a nominee to the Supreme Court, of sexually assaulting her three decades ago while they were both in high school.
When we are faced with even one case of lying, it makes it even harder for victims to prove themselves. Liars chill the atmosphere for real victims.
I don’t know if Jussie Smollett made up his story or not. But I do know that the consequences of false accusations are severe, and often tragic.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.