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Jussie Smollett pleads not guilty to staging hate-crime attack

Actor Jussie Smollett walks with supporters into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Thursday morning, March 14, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Actor Jussie Smollett walks with supporters into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Thursday morning, March 14, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“Empire” actor Jussie Smollett on Thursday pleaded not guilty on charges that he staged a hate-crime attack against himself in Streeterville.

Wearing sunglasses, despite the cloudy morning, the actor swept into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse past a phalanx of TV cameras and reporters, giving a nod to a group of a half-dozen fans who were chanting and holding handmade signs.

During a pair of brief hearings, Smollett’s case was assigned to the courtroom of Cook County Judge Steven Watkins, who reminded the actor that he will have to appear in court for his pre-trial hearings. Smollett next will return to the courthouse on April 17.

The actor, who has hired celebrity attorney Mark Geragos as his lead lawyer, received permission to travel to Geragos’ offices in Los Angeles and New York with 48 hours notice to court officials.

Smollett left the courthouse with his entourage of family and supporters, without addressing reporters who crowded the courthouse lobby. A spokeswoman for his legal team said actor Terrence Howard, who plays the father of Smollett’s character on “Empire,” had planned to attend Thursday’s hearing but wasn’t able to when his flight to Chicago was delayed. Producers of “Empire” wrote Smollett’s character out of the final two episodes of the latest season of the Fox network drama, which had it’s mid-season premiere on Wednesday.

A grand jury last week charged Smollett with 16 counts of disorderly conduct, one count for each crime he claimed to have suffered when he made statements to police when he first reported being attacked on Jan. 29, and one count each for repeating his account of the attack to a detective. The charges all are Class 4 felonies, the lowest category of felony offense under Illinois law.

Smollett, who is black and gay, told police that he was attacked by two men as he walked to his Streeterville apartment around 2 a.m. that morning, and that he struggled with his assailants as they hurled racist and homophobic slurs at him, punched him, wrapped a thin rope noose around his neck, and poured what he believed was bleach on him.

Chicago police investigators were able to use surveillance camera footage gathered from the surrounding buildings to track two men identified as brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo coming to and from the scene, though there was no camera that filmed the alleged assault.

After nearly 48 hours in police custody, the brothers told detectives that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to carry out the attack as a hoax intended to raise Smollett’s profile. Smollett’s lawyers have said the payments were for physical training sessions and nutritional supplements.

Sandra Gentry, 57, waited outside the courthouse for Smollett to arrive, wearing a headband emblazoned with the actor’s name and a T-shirt with a picture of her and the star at a community event. Large white letters on the back of the shirt identified Gentry as Smollett’s “#1 Fan Mom.”

“That’s what I am, his number one fan momma,” said Gentry, who met the actor while he was filming a scene for “Empire” near her home in North Lawndale some four years ago. Over the years, she said she has developed a “spiritual relationship” with the actor, and believes his claims of innocence.

“I know Jussie as a Christian. I know his heart,” Gentry said. “Everyone is innocent until proven otherwise.”

TIMELINE: The Jussie Smollett investigation