A Cook County judge on Friday appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the abrupt decision by state prosecutors to drop a 16-count indictment against actor Jussie Smollett, who had been accused of staging an attack on himself for publicity.
Judge Michael Toomin suggested that State's Attorney Kim Foxx had mishandled the case by appointing a top aide to handle it after she had purportedly recused herself.
In his ruling,Toomin said that Foxx, having recused herself, did not have legal authority to turn the case to over to another prosecutor in her office.
"Here, the ship of the State ventured from its protected harbor without the guiding hand of the captain," Toomin wrote. "There was no master on the bridge to guide the ship as it foundered through unchartered waters. And it ultimately lost its bearings."
Former state appellate Judge Sheila O'Brien, who had pushed for a special prosecutor, argued that Foxx's actions created "a perception that justice was not served here, that Mr. Smollett received special treatment," the Chicago Tribune reports.
Toomin said the prosecutor would be empowered to pursue a case "of any crime as may be suspected" and could even end up charging Smollett if the probe found suspicion of wrongdoing by others.
The tumultuous case began in January after Smollett, who is openly gay, claimed two assailants in Chicago beat him and hurled racial and homophobic slurs before yelling, "This is MAGA country," referring to President Trump's 2016 campaign slogan.
After an investigation, Smollett - who had appeared on the Fox TV series "Empire" - was accused of fabricating the story.
Smollett at first elicited widespread sympathy when he reported that two masked men jumped him, verbally assaulted him, poured a chemical on him and tied a rope around his neck during a late-night attack in a downtown Chicago street on Jan. 29.
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The sympathy turned into outrage when police started doubting Smollett's story and accused him of making it up, saying Smollett had falsified the report in an effort to gain fame.
Two brothers of Nigerian descent, who were acquaintances of Smollett, then came forward to say the actor had paid them to stage the attack.
In an unexpected twist, however, the case against Smollett, who faced 16 felony charges, was abruptly dropped by state's attorney Foxx, who said her office wasn't convinced it had enough evidence to convict Smollett and preferred to focus on more serious crimes.
That decision, in turn, triggered outrage from then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who said the alleged hoax had unnecessarily tied up police personnel and harmed the city's reputation.
Toomin's appointment of a special prosecutor was ordered even though the county's inspector general's office is already investigating Foxx's handling of the case.
Foxx had recused herself from the case, saying she wanted to avoid "even the perception of a conflict," after false rumors circulated that she was related to Smollett.
Recently unsealed court documents, however, showed that Foxx inserted herself in the case even though she had publicly vowed to stay out of the decision-making.
Smollett, who was dropped from "Empire," is also being sued by the city of Chicago, which is trying to recoup the cost of police overtime for investigating his initial charges.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz;The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jussie Smollett incident isn't over: Chicago judge appoints special prosecutor to investigate