Most people have heard the story about Jussie Smollett, the B-list actor who some believe received special treatment after a politically-connected attorney contacted Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx on behalf of his family.
It turns out that Smollett isn’t the only person to have extraordinarily good luck in court after a private appeal was sent to Foxx’s personal email address.
CWBChicago discovered the second case buried in nearly 4,000 pages of emails and text messages involving Cook County business that were transmitted to and from Foxx’s personal Gmail account and phone. Her office provided the documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The newly-discovered direct appeal to Foxx came from a former aide to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on behalf of a public defender.
A murderer gets a break
Dionte Johnson was 14-years-old when he participated in the brutal slaying of 16-year-old Derrion Albert on the city’s South Side on Sept. 24, 2009. Albert was beaten to death with a railroad tie. And the murder was captured on a video that spread around the world.
The other four participants received prison sentences for their involvement. But Johnson caught a break.
A judge ordered him to be jailed no longer than his 21st birthday. But his sentence had a second element. If Johnson was convicted of any new felonies as an adult, he’d face a 30 year adult prison term for the murder case. The arrangement is known as “Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction.”
He was paroled on June 2, 2015, at the age of 19 after serving 5 years and 7 months.
Three months later, on Sept. 6, prosecutors charged Johnson with a new case: felony aggravated fleeing and eluding after he sped through multiple red lights in an effort to evade police. And on Nov. 10, prosecutors said they would seek to activate the 30-year adult prison sentence.
For the next year, Johnson’s fleeing and eluding case worked its way through the system. A jury began hearing evidence on Nov. 8, 2016. The panel convicted him the next day. Judge Joan O’Brien ordered him held without bail until sentencing.
Nov. 8, 2016, is notable for another reason. It’s the day Cook County voters elected Kim Foxx to her first term as state’s attorney.
Johnson was in a jam. Prosecutors under Foxx’s predecessor, Anita Alvarez, were pushing for the 30-year prison sentence to kick in. And he had just been convicted by a jury.
At 7:30 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving 2016, an email arrived in Kim Foxx’s personal Gmail inbox. It came from Rebecca Janowitz, a former aide to Toni Preckwinkle who now serves on Preckwinkle’s “Justice Advisory Council.”
Foxx previously served as Preckwinkle’s chief of staff.
“Dear Kim,” the brief email began. “Attached please find a letter from Daniel Silverfarb. I hope you will give it serous consideration. Regards, Rebecca”
Silverfarb is an assistant public defender for the county, according to the office’s website.
“I am writing to you on behalf of my client Dionte Johnson,” Silverfarb began before laying out key dates in Johnson’s history. But the state’s attorney’s office did not provide the rest of Silverfarb’s letter. A spokesperson for Foxx said Janowitz’s email attachment only included the first page.
By 9 a.m., Foxx — who would not be sworn in as state’s attorney until Dec. 1 — forwarded the email and Silverfarb’s attached letter to two leaders in the state’s attorney’s office, Eric Sussman and Katie Hill.
Around the same time, Derrion Albert’s mother was summoned to a meeting. As ABC7 reported last year:
Anjanette Albert said they told them that, “Kim Foxx decided not to go any further with this to just, it’s over. She’s going to drop it and he’s going to get out and there was nothing that we could do.”
Cook County prosecutors were no longer seeking to enforce the 30-year sentence. Instead, they’d ask a judge for probation.
“One of the gentlemen said that it was determined that he had been rehabilitated,” said Golliday. “My face almost fell off my head. I could not believe that the guy actually said that.”
Anjanette Albert said she repeatedly called Foxx’s office, but Foxx never called her back.
Feb. 9, 2017, was sentencing day for Johnson. Rather than 30 years, he was given a one-year sentence off-set by time served. And he went home.
“It was not in the interest of justice to pursue a 30 year prison sentence in this case,” a Foxx spokesperson told ABC7.
“It is not uncommon for the State’s Attorney or any public official to receive unsolicited communications from members of the public expressing concerns or seeking justice,” a spokesperson for Foxx told CWBChicago.
“Those matters are then shared with the appropriate office staff who review the correspondence on a case by case basis to ensure integrity and accountability,” the spokesperson said.
In 2018 and 2019, Silverfarb donated a total of $5,600 to Janowitz’s political campaign fund, according to state records. Other than Janowitz herself, he’s her second-biggest source of funding.
Janowitz has twice donated to Foxx’s campaign: in 2015 and 2018.
Neither Janowitz nor Silverfarb responded to requests for comment and context.
Last August, police arrested Johnson again.
Officers said Johnson grabbed the front of his waistband as they approached him in the Pullman neighborhood. He jumped off a porch, ran away, and threw a handgun from his waistband, officers said. They caught up with him and allegedly recovered the gun.
Prosecutors charged him with being a felon in possession of a weapon. He’s currently jailed without bail and is due back in court on Monday, March 9.