Jussie Smollett pleads not guilty to new charges in hate-crime hoax case

The “Empire” actor made his first court appearance after being charged in a six-count indictment by the special prosecutor in the allegedly faked 2019 attack.

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Flanked by attorneys and supporters, former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett walks out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse after pleading not guilty to a new, six-count indictment charging him with falsely reporting he was the victim of a hate-crime attack near his Streeterville apartment in January 2019, Monday morning, Feb. 24, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A year after disorderly charges in an alleged staged hate crime attack were dropped against Jussie Smollett, the former “Empire” returned to a Chicago courthouse Monday.

After a brief hearing before Cook County Judge James B. Linn, Smollett walked out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, having entered a not-guilty plea to a six-count indictment brought by Special Prosecutor Dan Webb, for allegedly making false reports to police.

Smollett lawyer Tina Glandian said the actor would fight the charges — which are among the lowest-level felony counts in Illinois law — and refuse any offer of a plea deal.

“I’m confident that he’s not entering any plea other than a not guilty plea,” Glandian said to a throng of television cameras massed in the courthouse lobby.

Smollett was released on his own recognizance — promising to appear at his future court hearings — though Webb had asked Linn to require Smollett to post some bail, noting that Smollett had been held on $100,000 bail after his arrest in the now-dismissed case from 2019. Smollett gave the $10,000 he’d posted as bond in that case to the city at the same hearing where prosecutors dropped the case against him — just a few weeks after he was arrested in February 2019.

In a surprise move Monday morning, Smollett’s lawyers filed a petition before the state Supreme Court to block the case from moving forward, arguing that Webb’s appointment as special prosecutor — made after a retired judge petitioned the courts to re-investigate Smollett’s case and the decision to drop the charges — was improper. Smollett’s team also filed a motion asking Linn to dismiss the case, arguing that the new indictment for the same alleged crime was double jeopardy. Linn quickly moved to press on with Smollett’s arraignment.

After the hearing, veteran defense attorney Richard Kling said he expected Smollett’s lawyers would argue double jeopardy, but was fairly certain the actor’s petition would fail.

“I don’t think it’s got a chance,” said Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Smollett is expected to return to the courthouse for the next hearing in his latest disorderly conduct case on March 18 — a day after a primary election where State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is seeking a second term as her four opponents have made the race a referendum on how her office handled Smollett’s first case.

Walking at the center of a mass of a dozen relatives and supporters that blocked him from the view of a wall of dozens of TV cameras, Smollett swept out of the courthouse without making a statement.

Webb also left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. The former U.S. Attorney was appointed by Judge Michael Toomin six months ago to investigate whether to re-prosecute Smollett and to probe how the state’s attorney handled the case.

Webb announced new charges against Smollett earlier this month, and issued a statement, saying that his investigation of Foxx’s office still is ongoing.

Smollett also faces a lawsuit in federal court, where the city of Chicago is seeking to recover the $130,000 spent investigating the case. His Los Angeles- and New York-based attorneys, Mark Geragos and Glandian, face a defamation suit filed by brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who claim Smollett hired the to fake the attack.

The Osundairos sat in the gallery for the hearing with their lawyer, Gloria Schmidt, who told reporters that her clients were prepared to testify and had spoken with Webb’s team before the latest charges against Smollett were handed up by the grand jury.

“The brothers are sorry for their involvement and they’re going to do whatever they can,” Schmidt said. 

The actor and his attorneys have steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, blaming the charges on a police investigation that quickly focused on the actor and overlooked witnesses who saw at least one other man leaving the area of the attack around the time Smollett said he struggled with two white men who hit him, looped a thin rope noose around his neck and poured bleach on him while taunting him with racist, homophobic remarks.

The Osundairos, musclebound brothers who had worked as extras on “Empire” and had served as personal trainers for Smollett, claim that Smollett planned the attack and paid them $3,500 to carry it out. Smollett claims that if the attack was a hoax, it was one that he had no involvement in plotting, and that the $3,500 check made out to Abimbola was for his services as a trainer.

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