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Jurors sent home without reaching verdict in Jussie Smollett case

The panel of six men and six women, including a Black man, spent 2 1⁄2 hours in deliberations Wednesday. The jurors will return Thursday morning to deliberate.

Flanked by family members, supporters, attorneys and bodyguards, former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett walks out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse as the jury starts deliberations, Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 8, 2021. The 39-year-old actor and singer is charged with lying to Chicago police in 2019 when he claimed he was the victim of a racist and anti-gay attack near his Streeterville apartment.
Flanked by family members, supporters, attorneys and bodyguards, former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett walks out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse as the jury starts deliberations, Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 8, 2021. The 39-year-old actor and singer is charged with lying to Chicago police in 2019 when he claimed he was the victim of a racist and anti-gay attack near his Streeterville apartment.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Jurors weighing in on Jussie Smollett’s fate were sent home Wednesday evening after failing to reach a verdict after over two hours of deliberations.

The panel of six women and six men, one of whom is Black, began deliberations around 2:42 p.m., following closing arguments fitting for the tabloid melodrama that has surrounded the “Empire” actor’s case since the alleged hate crime was reported to Chicago police in January 2019.

Jurors are expected to return to Cook County Judge James Linn’s courtroom Thursday morning to resume deliberations.

In his closing statement, Special Prosecutor Dan Webb said Smollett broke the law when he reported to police that two white men beat him up on the street near his Streeterville home and looped a noose over his head. In fact, Webb said, Smollett had plotted to have two acquaintances stage the attack as a publicity stunt.

“It’s just plain wrong for Mr. Smollett, a successful Black actor, to outright denigrate something as serious, as heinous, as a real hate crime,” Webb said.

“To denigrate it and then make sure it involved words and symbols that have such horrible historical significance in our country.”

Webb, over a course of two hours, outlined an investigation that involved some two dozen police officers and 3,000 man-hours that concluded with “overwhelming evidence” that Smollett was the mastermind behind the attack.

Prosecutors largely built their case around the testimony of Smollett’s alleged accomplices, brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo. The brothers testified that Smollett directed the planning and execution of the attack, including scouting of the location and scripting the racist, homophobic insults they yelled as they rushed him.

Smollett’s lead attorney, Nenye Uche, cast the Osundairos as “sophisticated criminals,” who staged the attack to get paid, at first by getting Smollett to hire them as bodyguards, and then, after implicating Smollett in the crime, seeking a multimillion-dollar payout.

“They did a scam called the blame the victim scam,” Uche said.

(From left) Abimbola Osundairo, attorney Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez, a man who identified himself as a bodyguard and Olabinjo Osundairo walk into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for the Jussie Smollett trial Thursday morning.
(From left) Abimbola Osundairo, attorney Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez, a man who identified himself as a bodyguard and Olabinjo Osundairo walk into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for the Jussie Smollett trial Thursday morning.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Webb made much of seemingly odd behavior by the actor, starting with Smollett’s refusal to hand over evidence to help solve the crime.

“Smollett didn’t want the crime solved,” Webb said.

If Smollett turned his cellphone over to police, investigators would have been led to the Osundairos quicker and if police got his medical records, investigators would have known he only suffered minor injuries, Webb said.

Uche noted that Smollett did give Abimbola Osundairo’s name and phone number to detectives, even though he was reluctant to turn over his own cellphone.

In stitching together an otherwise circumstantial case, jurors will have to weigh whether to believe Smollett, who spent eight hours on the stand this week, over his alleged accomplices.

In sometimes testy exchanges during cross-examination, Smollett, 39, had answers that were either mundane or profound while explaining his actions in the days before the alleged attack and the weeks that followed.

Circling the area where the incident would take place with the Osundairos in his SUV was not rehearsal for the attack, it was the actor’s habit to drive aimlessly while smoking weed with friends. Refusing to turn over his cellphone to police, then offering up only heavily redacted call records, was not an attempt to conceal his communications with Abimbola Osundairo, it was simply a celebrity guarding his privacy, Smollett said.

Webb said the actor’s explanations were so unbelievable, they “lacked any credibility whatsoever.”

“Mr. Smollett went on that witness stand, took and oath to tell the truth, and made many, many false statements to you,” the special prosecutor said. ”He lied to you as jurors.”

Webb questioned how Smollett expected jurors to believe that the Osundairos would know exactly where and when Smollett would be leaving his home on a frigid morning of the January 2019 incident.

“How would the brothers ever know where Smollett was going to be right at 2 a.m.?” Webb said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Uche countered that Smollett has always been consistent in his story about what happened and had no motive to stage a fake hate crime against himself.

The defense attorney told the jury the case was “built like a house of cards. We all know what happens to a house of cards when you apply a little pressure.”

“Not only does Jussie have a lack of motive he has anti-motive, it’s like anti-matter,” Uche added.

Smollett shied away from the spotlight and didn’t like publicity, even turning down an offer to join singer Alicia Keys on stage at the Grammy Awards following the attack, Uche said. Smollett declined security when it was offered to him, yet prosecutors claimed he was motived to stage the attack because he was unhappy with how the television studio handled a threatening letter he received, Uche said.

“Give me a break,” Uche said.

The Osundairo brothers — the state’s star witnesses — were nothing more than “ slick con men,” Uche said.

“They’re criminals. They’re the worst type of criminals.”

Uche repeated the claim that the brothers, through an intermediary, reached out to Smollett with an offer to publicly state the actor wasn’t in on the hoax in exchange for a $2 million payoff.

Their home was filthy and filled with guns and drugs, Uche said, at one point comparing the brothers to Columbian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Police previously testified only a small amount of cocaine was found at their Lake View apartment.

Uche also raised the possibly that additional people were involved in the attack, noting witnesses said they saw a suspicious white man with a rope about an hour before the attack and that a security guard in Streeterville told police he saw a pale-skinned man running away as Smollett picked himself up off the street.

A cab driver who picked up the brothers before the attack “heard one of the brothers talking to someone” not in the car, Uche said, citing it as evidence that they had cellphones despite testifying they followed Smollet’s orders to leave them at home.

Former federal prosecutor Dan Webb, who was appointed special prosecutor in the Jussie Smollett case, walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Wednesday morning
Former federal prosecutor Dan Webb, who was appointed special prosecutor in the Jussie Smollett case, walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Wednesday.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Word that the popular actor had been beaten by two men as he walked home from a sandwich shop on Jan. 29, 2019, quickly made international headlines.

That his alleged attackers had yelled racist and anti-gay slurs at him, doused him in bleach and hung a thin rope noose around his neck in the attack — while supposedly wearing a red hat and shouting then-President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan — elevated the crime to “an attempted modern-day lynching” as now Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted shortly after the news broke.

But rumors that the case was not what it first appeared to be cast a shadow on the actor soon after.

For Smollett, who lost his job on “Empire” and has become a pariah in the entertainment industry in the years since he first was charged, the legal stakes are likely low. The six counts of disorderly conduct he faces each are low-level felonies with maximum sentences of three years, and Smollett likely would be eligible for probation.

Smollett testified that he was riding high in the winter of 2019 and about to film an episode of “Empire” in which his character, Jamal Lyon, was to marry another man — the first gay Black male marriage on network TV. Smollett’s music career was blossoming, and his “Empire” salary had nearly tripled from the first season.

Smollett testified that he didn’t want to call police after the attack, fearing that if it became public that he’d been beaten up, it would hurt his chances of scoring traditionally masculine acting roles. The publicity that came after the assault became news — hoax or not— boosted his profile, and the fallout after police charged him for allegedly staging the hate crime quickly killed his career.

“Since this incident happened have you gotten and secured significant roles in Hollywood or in TV or commercials?” Uche asked Smollett.

“No,” the actor said flatly.

“Did you gain anything?” Uche asked.

“I’ve lost my livelihood,” Smollett said.