Jussie Smollett took the witness stand Monday, a star turn for the actor at his trial for allegedly choreographing a hoax hate crime attack that boosted him to international fame — and sank his career.
Wearing a dark blue suit and maroon tie, Smollett spent around six hours fielding questions from his attorney and parrying Special Prosecutor Dan Webb about his role in the alleged hoax. Smollett testified that he was the unwitting victim of a betrayal by a close friend, and then became wary of Chicago Police investigators after several leaks from police sources who were skeptical of his story.
Smollett for the first time told jurors his version of the night he was attacked and his relationship to the prosecution’s star witnesses, brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, whom he allegedly paid to act as his attackers.
Smollett’s lead attorney, Nenye Uche, closed out his direct questioning of the actor with a string of questions delivered at a near-shout, instructing his client to face jurors as he answered.
“Have you ever planned a hoax?” he asked.
“Never in my life,” Smollett said.
“Did you ever give (anyone) $100 to go buy supplies?” Uche said, shouting directions to the actor. “Don’t look at me! Look at the jury! Your fate is in their hands!
“No, I never did,” Smollett said.
Describing the attack, which he partially reenacted with his lawyer a few feet from the jury box, Smollett said he fought back after being struck in the head.
“I would like to think that I landed a punch, but I know that I certainly threw one,” Smollett said.
Smollett said he was reluctant to even call police immediately after the attack, worried that any coverage would hurt his career. His creative director, who was staying at his condo, called police without Smollett’s permission, he said.
“I am, I was, a well-known figure at that time. I’m an actor, I wanted to play boxer ... I want to blow things up,” he said.
“The moment that I got beat, I became a f----t that got his ass beat. I knew that.”
Webb got in roughly an hour of cross-examination before asking the judge to break for the day. Smollett was poised and at times indignant, as Webb tried to cast the star’s refusal to hand over his cellphone and medical records to police after the attack as proof Smollett was afraid they’d uncover his connection to the Osundairos.
“I wanted the police to solve a crime that had been committed against me,” Smollett insisted.
Smollett’s testimony is key to defusing key bits of circumstantial evidence, and his apparent lack of cooperation with investigators, as data points that prosecutors have used to buttress a case that leans largely on testimony from Smollett’s alleged accomplices, the Osundairos.
“I’m trying to figure out what you admit to the jury and what you deny,” Webb said. “Anything that has surveillance on it, you’re going to admit. Anything else you’re going to deny.”
But that line of questioning stalled after Webb played video of Smollett’s SUV when he was riding with Abimbola Osundairo before the attack, when Smollett allegedly recruited him for the fake attack.
“I had admitted all of this even before,” Smollett said, his voice rising.
“I have been questioned about many things … I told the truth about everything.”
Testimony from “Empire” showrunner Brett Mahoney delivered a blow to the prosecution theory that Smollett concocted the hoax because he felt the studio didn’t do enough after a letter threatening the actor was sent to their Chicago production office.
“The only concern that I believe was expressed (by Smollett) was he felt like the security was too intrusive and he did not want it following him home,” Mahoney said.
Questioned by his attorneys, Smollett claimed he was far from unhappy with his career in the winter of 2019. As he filmed the fourth season of the show, his star was on the rise, his salary had nearly tripled and his music career was taking off by the fourth season of the show.
Smollett said “Empire” creator Lee Daniels described the actor’s TV role as groundbreaking.
“You have to be for gay Black men what Phylicia Rashad was for Black women on ‘The Cosby Show,’” Smollett told jurors.
Days before he was charged, Smollett had given a tearful interview to reporter Robin Roberts, proclaiming himself the victim of both a violent attack and a homophobic, racist public. Monday, Smollett testified that he only booked the interview at the behest of the Fox Network.
“They said do it,” Smollett said the studio told him. “It’s one and done. Just tell the truth and you’re good.”
Smollett insisted he told the truth in the interview with Roberts as well as police — “Not one iota of information has changed,” he said — but publicity he allegedly sought from his hoax sent his ascendant career into a tailspin.
“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.