As the drama of Jussie Smollett plays out in a more dramatic fashion than an episode of his hit series Empire, the actor and singer is finding himself in the hot seat as he was officially indicted Wednesday night by an Illinois grand jury which alleges that he actually staged the assault he reported to Chicago police in January. He was charged with a felony count of disorderly conduct. The announcement follows news report and statements from the Chicago police department that called Smollett’s story into question.
The FBI estimates there are roughly 400 cases of hoax emergency calls every year, but few make headlines in such a dramatic fashion as did Smollett’s story, which had all the headline-grabbing elements of 2019: homophobia, racism, political tension. Yet while Smollett might have cost the city of Chicago a great deal of manpower and resources, his hoax remains relatively tame compared to other major hoaxes or false alarms in America’s recent history.
Susan Smith, false claim of kidnapping, 1994
In October 1994, South Carolina mother of two Susan Smith frantically called the police, claiming that an armed black man had hijacked her car with her two sons inside. She provided a police sketch and an extensive manhunt ensued throughout the southeast. A little over a week later, Smith admitted to drowning her sons by putting them in her car and letting it roll into John D. Long Lake. She was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 2024.
Duke Lacrosse Players, falsely accused of rape, 2006
In March 2006, Crystal Gail Mangum, working as a stripper and escort at the time, accused Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans, all members of the Duke University men’s lacrosse team, of raping her at a party held in March of 2006. Like the Smollett case, Durham District Attorney Nifong suggested that the alleged rape was a hate crime as the accused were white and the alleged victim was Black. In response to the allegations, Duke University suspended the lacrosse team for two games on March 28, 2006. A week later, Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler was forced to resign under threat by athletic director Joe Alleva. Duke canceled the remainder of the 2006 lacrosse season. The case drew passionate responses from the media, faculty groups, students, the community, and others, sparking debate about racism, media bias, and “rape culture” on college campuses.
On April 11, 2007, following an extensive investigation, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges and declared the three lacrosse players innocent of the rape allegations. Cooper stated that the players were victims of a “tragic rush to accuse.” The lead prosecutor, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong was ultimately forced to resign.
Yet while names are cleared and cases settled, feeling aren’t so easy to turn on and off. For a year, many people believed the Duke players were rapists. For a month, the public lived in fear of unnamed carjackers/kidnappers, causing heightened suspicion towards young black men in North Carolina. For a month, the city of Chicago remained synonymous with bigotry and hate. All cases did a serious disservice to actual cases of domestic violence, kidnapping, rape, and hate crimes, doing serving as nothing more than to provide a sensational story- and doing absolutely nothing to solve the real problems facing our country.
Ashley Todd, false claim of political assault, 2008
In October 2008, less than two weeks before the 2008 presidential election, Ashley Todd, a volunteer for Republican John McCain’s presidential campaign, claimed to have been assaulted and robbed in a politically motivated attack by an Obama supporter. She claimed that her attacker was a “six-foot-four African American of medium build, dressed in dark clothes wearing shiny shoes.” Yet following an investigation, surveillance photos and a polygraph test showed that she fabricated the story. She was charged with filing a false police report, and entered a probation program for first-time offenders.
Yasmin Seweid, false claim of racial attack, 2016
In December of 2016, college student Yasmin Seweid claimed that three white men attacked her on a New York City Subway, tearing the hijab from her head, yelling “Donald Trump” and other anti-Islamic slurs. Following an investigation, Seweid admitted to making up the story because she didn’t want to get in trouble for breaking her curfew after being out late drinking with friends- including a Christian boyfriend. She was charged by the New York City police department for filing a false report and sentenced to six months of counseling and three days of community service. If she fulfills the terms of her deal, the more egregious charges will be dropped and her crimes will be reduced to a single violation.
Tyler Barriss, false claim of a hostage situation, 2017
In late 2017, following a dispute with a fellow online gamer, Barris called the authorities on 28-year-old Andrew Finch, alleging that Finch had shot his father in the head and was holding his mother and a sibling at gunpoint. A police SWAT team responded to the call, which turned out to be a hoax, and subsequently shot and killed Finch. Barriss pleaded guilty to 51 federal charges involving not just the hoax towards Finch, but also numerous fake bomb threats, murders, and other violence reported at schools, shopping centers, TV stations, homes and government buildings across the country. He is awaiting sentencing in Kansas.