Jussie Smollett heads to trial, nearly 3 years after the former ‘Empire’ star was accused of hate crime hoax

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.

SHARE Jussie Smollett heads to trial, nearly 3 years after the former ‘Empire’ star was accused of hate crime hoax
Actor and singer Jussie Smollett speaks to reporters in 2019 after the initial charges against him were dropped.

Actor and singer Jussie Smollett speaks to reporters in 2019 after the initial charges against him were dropped.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Jury selection is expected to begin Monday in the trial of former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett — nearly three years after he claimed he was the victim of a hate crime only to later be accused of staging the attack.

The controversy significantly tarnished Smollett’s career when he was criminally charged and led to his character being written off the hit Fox televsion show “Empire.” It also brought intense scrutiny on Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office when the initial disorderly conduct charges against Smollett were suddenly dropped months later.

That decision by Foxx’s office led to the appointment of former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb as a special prosecutor in the case tasked with reinvestigating the allegations against Smollett, as well as possible wrongdoing by Foxx and her staff.

A year later, Smollett was indicted again on six counts of disorderly conduct — all low-level felony charges — related to making false statements to police about the alleged attack.

The stakes at trial for Smollett are fairly low: The charges against him carry a maximum sentence of three years, with a lighter sentence, even probation, the likely outcome if he is convicted, given Smollett’s lack of a serious criminal background.

The 39-year-old actor and singer is accused of lying to Chicago police when he claimed he was the victim of a racist and anti-gay attack in the below-freezing, early morning hours of Jan. 29, 2019, near his Streeterville apartment.

Smollett, who is Black and gay, said he was walking home when two men approached him in the 300 block of East North Lower Water Street and attacked him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs.

The actor claimed the men had also shouted “This is MAGA country,” a reference to then-President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan, poured a bleach-like liquid on him and hung a thin rope noose around his neck.

The allegations captured international headlines and fed concerns over reports of a surge in hate crimes across the country following Trump’s election. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker tweeted Smollett’s claims amounted to an “attempted modern day lynching,” and Trump called the allegations “horrible” when he was asked about them at a news conference.

But rumors quickly emerged that investigators were skeptical Smollett was telling the truth.

Smollett addressed his doubters days later in a statement saying, “I am working with authorities and have been 100% factual and consistent on every level,” and gave a tearful interview on “Good Morning America” to defend himself.

Speculation in the case grew to a fever pitch with the arrests of brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, who had worked as extras on “Empire.”

The brothers, who are expected to be key witnesses against Smollett, were later released and claim Smollett paid them $3,500 to fake the attack.

After Smollett’s arrest, then-Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson publicly called the attack a hoax crafted by Smollett himself. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel blasted the actor for besmirching Chicago’s reputation with a bogus story.

At Smollett’s bond hearing, prosecutors alleged he had staged the attack because he was unhappy with how television studio for “Empire” had handled disclosure of a purported racist letter mailed to the actor that contained a white powder substance.

Officials said the powder was determined to be from a crushed-up, over-the-counter pain reliever and that Smollett had sent the letter to himself because he was unhappy with his salary on the show.

Many were stunned when only a month later, prosecutors told a judge they would be dropping all charges against Smollett after reaching an agreement with the actor to perform community service and turn over his bond to the city of Chicago.

Smollett was not required to admit to any wrongdoing as part of the agreement.

Foxx had announced she would be recusing herself from the case a day before the actor’s arrest, later explaining she had decided to assign the case to her top deputy because she had talked about the case with a relative of Smollett’s during the time the actor was considered a victim.

Webb’s investigation found no illegal conduct by Foxx or her staff, but said she abused prosecutorial discretion when she dropped the charges against Smollett.

Webb’s report was ordered sealed and has yet to be released to the public.

The trial will not feature testimony from Foxx, Emanuel or former top cop Johnson, all of whom had been subpoenaed by Smollett’s defense team, only to have Judge James Linn rule their testimony would not be required.

Linn, who will oversee the trial, rejected a motion to allow cameras in the courtroom to cover the proceedings and said the proceeding won’t be streamed live, which is typical of jury trials in the county.

Due to social distancing measure undertaken during the pandemic at the courthouse, attendance will also be significantly limited in the courtroom.

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