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Chicago activist banned from courthouse during Jussie Smollett trial
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Chicago activist banned from courthouse during Jussie Smollett trial

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Jussie Smollett Trial

Actor Jussie Smollett arrives Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for jury selection at his trial in Chicago. 

A Chicago activist and writer was banned last week from the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse for the duration of the Jussie Smollett trial, apparently because she spoke to the media during the high-profile case.

After activist and rap artist Bella BAHHS (Black Ancestors Here Healing Society) spoke to the media Tuesday, she was informed by Smollett’s media representative that the judge had asked that she leave the courtroom.

The removal appears to stem from Cook County Judge James Linn’s verbal instruction to attorneys that they were not to give press interviews during the trial.

BAHHS, who is a friend of the Smollett family, is not a member of the legal team and did not speak to his attorneys before addressing reporters, she and Smollett’s media representative told the Tribune.

BAHHS had attended the trial Tuesday, sitting in the front row with the Smollett family, after they invited her into court.

Two brothers stand at the center of the case that prosecutors will lay before jurors when the trial of Jussie Smollett begins this week. The former "Empire" actor contends he was the victim of a racist and homophobic assault in downtown Chicago on a frigid night in January 2019. The siblings, who worked with him on the TV show, say he paid them $3,500 to pose as his attackers. Smollett arrived at court Monday for the trial. He is accused of lying to police about the alleged attack and has been charged with felony disorderly conduct. A class 4 felony, the crime carries a sentence of up to three years in prison but experts have said it is more likely that if Smollett is convicted he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.

On the lunch break that day, media consultant Anne Kavanagh, who was hired by Smollett’s family, asked BAHHS if she would address reporters in the lobby, who were seeking a comment from someone.

BAHHS agreed and stopped to speak to reporters on her way to lunch.

When asked by the Tribune about the comments, BAHHS said she told reporters this: “I don’t know Jussie Smollett to be the type of person who would falsify a crime, I do know CPD to be that type of department though.”

BAHHS returned to the courtroom after lunch and was able to listen to some testimony before she was told by Kavanagh that the judge wanted her to leave. Sheriff’s deputies then escorted her out of the courtroom and downstairs to the courthouse’s front doors, she said.

Linn did not respond to a request for comment.

But in an exchange in court that afternoon, which the jury was not present for, Linn addressed concerns about statements that had been made to the media.

Linn, who was speaking to attorneys in the case, first stated that the lawyers had agreed they were not going to make comments or statements to the press.

“It’s not a gag order; it’s just an agreement between the lawyers,” he said.

Linn went on to say that he was aware of “statements made in the lobby,” and then mentioned “a self-described activist.”

Linn also said, “Nobody is going to infect this trial.”

On Thursday, BAHHS attempted to return to the courtroom and was told again by an officer at the door she wasn’t allowed inside. BAHHS then said she asked him to check with the judge and verify why she was not allowed in, but he did not.

In a statement, the Cook County sheriff’s office confirmed Linn made a “verbal” order barring “an individual seated in the gallery of his courtroom from the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building for the remainder of the trial of Jussie Smollett” and that sheriff’s deputies had escorted this person out in compliance with the order.

BAHHS, meanwhile, could only guess as to why she was told to leave.

“I think he did not want me in that courtroom because of my political views,” she said.

BAHHS, who was born Ambrell Gambrell, grew up in the Austin neighborhood and is a rapper, artist and writer who has interviewed Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

She is a founder of the Sister Survivor Network, an organization that focuses on the impact of incarceration on Black women and girls, and is an abolitionist activist who is pushing to replace the criminal justice system with non-law-enforcement resources that address the root causes of crime.

BAHHS said if her removal was related to her political views, the broader concern she has is how the court was limiting and prejudicing the public’s understanding of what was happening at trial.

“It’s about who gets to bear witness to these public trials,” she said.

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