Jussie Smollett guilty of staging hate crime and lying about it
The “Empire” actor was found guilty on five counts of disorderly conduct, but the jury acquitted him on one count.
Battered in the court of public opinion almost from the moment he reported he had been attacked near his Streeterville home three years ago, actor Jussie Smollett was convicted Thursday by a Cook County jury following an eight-day trial.
The “Empire” actor was found guilty of five counts of disorderly conduct and acquitted on a sixth count after nine hours of deliberation by jurors — six women and six men, only one of whom was Black — indicating they may have struggled to reach a consensus.
Smollet, 39, stood rigidly, with his hands clasped in front of him, as the jurors filed into Judge James Linn’s courtroom, and he showed no reaction as the forewoman read the verdicts.
Nearly an hour later, Smollett, his mother and siblings briskly walked past a throng of reporters and photographers crowded in the Leighton Criminal Courthouse’s lobby. Ignoring shouted questions and staring fixedly ahead, Smollett and his entourage rushed from the courthouse to a pair of waiting black SUVs before driving away.
The actor will remain free on his own recognizance until his sentencing, which will likely not take place for several months.
It was an outcome the actor likely thought he had escaped when State’s Attorney Kim Foxx made the controversial choice to drop charges against Smollett in March 2019, a month after he was indicted.
Special Prosecutor Dan Webb, who was appointed to review the case against Smollett and probe potential misconduct by Foxx, saw Smollett indicted again. On Thursday, the veteran attorney said the verdicts, while mixed, were a “complete vindication” of the Chicago police investigation Smollett’s defense had tried to paint as biased and incomplete.
“Maybe the Chicago Police Department is not perfect, but I’ll tell you this, what they did on this case was extraordinary police work,” Webb said.
“And the fact that this jury convicted him on virtually all counts was based on testimony from Chicago police officers and the Osundairo brothers, and I believe it’s a complete vindication of everything the Chicago Police Department did to thoroughly and conscientiously investigate this case.”
Smollett was on trial for hiring brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo to assault him on a frigid night in January 2019, scripting even the racial slurs and “MAGA” slogan they were to shout as they attacked.
Smollett’s crime was not the hoax itself, but lying that the attack was real to police, with a count for each time he told investigators he had been a victim.
The first of the two counts were for Smollett’s conversation with the officer who first arrived at his apartment after the actor’s creative director called 911. At the time, Smollett described himself as the innocent victim of a battery and a hate crime. The third, fourth and fifth counts were for when Smollett repeated his story to a detective later that morning, and then again a few hours later.
The sixth count, which netted Smollett his lone not-guilty verdict, was for his statement to a different detective — two weeks after the attack and the day police told him the Osundairos were his attackers. The actor at that time claimed to have been the victim of an aggravated battery.
The melodrama that has surrounded the case since the Jan. 29, 2019 incident was reported, likely is not over.
Smollett’s attorney, Nenye Uche, told reporters Thursday that the defense team would appeal the verdicts, although Uche declined to list any of the “many” issues with the high-profile case. The mixed result, Uche said, did not make sense.
“The verdict is inconsistent. You cannot say Jussie is not lying for the same exact incident,” Uche said.
“Jussie is disappointed, but he remains confident. He’s 100% confident this is going to be reversed on appeal.”
Smollett is unlikely to face as stiff a sentence as public sentiment has already dealt him —the actor was fired from his hit television show and his budding music career stalled and died.
Taking the stand for eight hours spanning two days of the trial this week, Smollett admitted he had not received any new offers for work since he was initially charged.
“I’ve lost my livelihood,” he testified dryly.
The charges are low-level felonies that carry a possible sentence of three years but would likely result in a sentence of probation for the fallen star.
Linn did not set a date for sentencing. Lawyers — but not Smollett — will have an online hearing Jan. 27 to set a schedule for post-trial motions.
The jury forewoman shut her door in suburban Burbank when questioned about the verdicts later Thursday night. “No comment, no comment,” she said.
Two other female jurors and a male juror also declined comment.
Webb said Smollett’s testimony, which featured some tense sparring with the former federal prosecutor, likely hurt Smollett’s case. Webb said Smollett’s account — that he had been headed to the store to buy eggs before detouring to get a sandwich at 2 a.m. on the frigid night — was “ridiculous,” as was his statement on the stand that he could not be sure the Osundairos were his attackers, even after watching the testimony presented at trial.
“Defendants do not have the right to go in front of a jury and lie under oath,” Webb said Thursday night.
“Twenty-six Chicago police officers spent 3,000 hours of time, costing this city well over $100,000, for a fake crime that never occurred,” Webb said. “And by the way, a fake crime that denigrates what a real hate crime is.”
Police officers are often accused of sweeping “things under the rug,” but when Smollett reported that he was attacked, “They took it seriously, they believed he was a victim of a crime and they worked so hard ...,” Webb said.
Webb took on the case for free after a judge appointed him to investigate the circumstances that led the state’s attorney’s office to drop the initial charges against Smollett.
Though Webb found no evidence of criminal misconduct by Foxx and her staff in the office’s decision to drop the charges, he accused the county’s top prosecutor of “substantial abuses of discretion.”
Webb’s full report on his finding remains under seal and has not been released to the public.
On Thursday, Webb declined to comment on what the trial’s outcome said about the state’s attorney’s office’s decision to drop the charges, saying “what happened speaks for itself.”
Foxx was reelected in 2020, handily defeating primary challengers and her general election opponent despite the controversy.
A state’s attorney’s office spokeswoman wrote in a statement Thursday: “The jury has spoken. While this case has garnered a lot of attention, we hope as a county we can move forward.
“We will continue to focus on the important work of this office, prioritizing and prosecuting violent crime.”
The special prosecutors’ case rested heavily on testimony from Smollett’s former co-conspirators in a clearly ad hoc plot to boost his celebrity status by casting the openly gay Black actor as the victim of a pair of white Donald Trump supporters who happened upon Smollett by his home.
Abimbola Osundairo had worked for several years with Smollett on the “Empire” set and as a personal trainer and occasional drug purveyor when the actor sent him a fateful text in January 2019: “Might need your help on the low.” Smollett said he was arranging for Abimbola Osundairo to buy him illegal steroids during a trip to Nigeria. Abimbola Osundairo testified it was the first step in plotting the attack, which Smollett wanted carried out because his studio wasn’t taking a menacing letter addressed to the actor as a serious threat.
Osundairo’s older brother, Olabinjo, was recruited for the staged attack soon after. The goal, the Osundairos testified, was to have the attack filmed by a police surveillance camera — footage that could be posted to social media and establish the actor as victim of a horrific crime.
Smollett scouted the location poorly — the camera was pointed in the opposite direction— but the attack wound up launching Smollett’s name recognition to stratospheric heights, though the controversy rendered him a punchline and a pariah.
Smollett’s defense struggled to add yet another alternative plot line to a case that has been wrapped in conspiracy theories since reports of the attack first hit the news. Smollett’s lawyers tried to cast the brothers as scammers and homophobes who plotted against Smollett, even as Abimbola Osundairo cultivated a friendship with the star.
The Osundairos’ testimony tied together a highly circumstantial case. Only they and Smollett were in on the plan, which was sketched out by the actor a few days before the attack, the brothers testified.
Abimbola Osundairo, now a nationally ranked amateur boxer, was in Louisiana for a USA boxing match Thursday night. Olabinjo Osundairo watched the verdict on video feed in an overflow courtroom.
Contributing: Sophie Sherry, Tom Schuba and Mitchell Armentrout