After nearly three years on trial in the court of public opinion, former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett on Monday finally took a seat across from a Cook County jury.
Locking arms with his sister and mother, Smollett walked into court to face charges the actor staged a hate crime attack near his Streeterville home in 2019, a case that has been delayed first by a controversial non-plea agreement, a yearlong special prosecutor review and then a pandemic that stalled the court system for months.
As the actor sat impassively at the defense table during opening statements, Special Prosecutor Dan Webb said Smollett hired associates to fake a racist and homophobic assault at the expense of real victims.
Smollett’s lawyer responded that Smollett was a victim of a real assault, a biased police force and betrayal by a friend he trusted.
“When he reported the fake hate crime as a real hate crime, that violated Illinois law,” Webb told the jury.
“It not only violated Illinois law, but it’s just plain wrong that Mr. Smollett, as a successful Black actor, openly gay person, would denigrate something as serious as a hate crime and then just pretend one occurred when it didn’t occur.”
Webb said the prosecution’s case was built around thousands of hours of surveillance video, text messages and cell phone records connecting Smollett to the men he allegedly hired to fake the attack, brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo.
But Smollett’s lead attorney said the actor was a victim of not just a hate crime but a betrayal by men he believed were his friends, and by police who quickly fixated on Smollett as a suspect.
“The evidence is going to show there was a tremendous rush to judgment, and this rush to judgment has destroyed Jussie Smollett’s life, it has destroyed his career, it has made him a pariah,” said lawyer Nenye Uche.
Uche said text messages also will show the Osundairos secretly despised Smollett, who is openly gay, and she rattled off the type and number of firearms, computers, cell phones and drugs discovered in the brothers’ Lincoln Park home during a police search.
“Jussie thought he had a real friend, but the friendship ran one way,” Uche said. “Jussie was a good friend, (Abimbola) wasn’t. They pretended to like him, (but) to them Jussie wasn’t a friend, he was a mark, he was a target, and they had an agenda that unfortunately they executed successfully.”
The emphasis by both sides on the likely testimony from the Osundairo brothers shows they will be essential to building the case against Smollett, said Chicago attorney April Preyar, one of only a handful of spectators who were able to observe the trial because of COVID-19 precautions that limited the courtroom to a capacity of 57 people.
“It sounds like the state is able to show there was a relationship between these guys and Smollett with text messages and communications, but it wasn’t clear how they’re going to show this plot since the plot is not on text messages, it’s not on a recording,” Preyar said.
“It’s going to come down to who presents better, and if they can show these guys as scammers, then maybe a jury will believe this was a scam … and if he takes the stand, I have to believe Jussie is going to present well to the jury.”
Jury selection went quickly for a high-profile case, with a panel of 12 — six men, six women and only a single African-American — and two alternate jurors chosen in about six hours. Opening statements began after 5 p.m. Monday, and Judge James Linn said he expected more late nights as he will try to bring the trial to a close this week or early next week.
Smollett faces six counts of disorderly conduct related to making false statements to police officers during the course of the investigation; the charges are low-level felonies that are likely to earn the actor a sentence of probation if he is found guilty.
“That’s the real story here, all the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been spent on this case, from the investigation, to the special prosecutor, to this trial,” Preyar said. “People make false police reports all the time and don’t even get charged. All this, and for someone with (Smollett’s) criminal background, he’ll get probation at most.”