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Jussie Smollett takes the witness stand in his own defense on fifth day of his trial

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 12/6/2021 Megan Crepeau and Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune
Jussie Smollett arrives with family members at the Leighton Criminal Court Building for his trial on disorderly conduct charges on Dec. 6, 2021, in Chicago. © Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS Jussie Smollett arrives with family members at the Leighton Criminal Court Building for his trial on disorderly conduct charges on Dec. 6, 2021, in Chicago.

CHICAGO — Jussie Smollett has taken the witness stand in his own defense against charges that he arranged a phony hate crime on himself one frigid night in January 2019.

The former “Empire” actor was sworn in just after noon Monday, and at first spoke so quietly that his attorney had to ask him to speak up.

After speaking to jurors about his family life and his history as an entertainer, Smollett’s testimony focused on his time on “Empire,” and his relationship with Abimbola Osundairo, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses. Osundairo told jurors last week that Smollett recruited him and his brother to help orchestrate the phony hate crime attack.

Smollett met Osundairo at a club during Season 4 of “Empire"; the two men then used cocaine and weed, and went to a bathhouse in the Northalsted neighborhood together, where they did more drugs and made out, Smollett said.

“There was some touching,” he said.

Smollett’s testimony could signal an attempt by the defense to suggest the brothers carried out the attack for reasons other than the alleged attempt by the actor to fake it and get the attention of leaders of his television show. On the witness stand last week, Osundairo denied that he and Smollett had ever dated, and said he did not think there was sexual tension between the two men.

Jussie Smollett arrives with family members at the Leighton Criminal Court Building for his trial on disorderly conduct charges on Dec. 6, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois.- Former "Empire" star Jussie Smollett is accused of making false reports to authorities that he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in 2019.. © Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS Jussie Smollett arrives with family members at the Leighton Criminal Court Building for his trial on disorderly conduct charges on Dec. 6, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois.- Former "Empire" star Jussie Smollett is accused of making false reports to authorities that he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in 2019..

Smollett said Monday that the two men struck up a friendship; they would drive around smoking blunts as part of Smollett’s creative process, and as a way to relax, he said.

Prosecutors have pointed to surveillance footage of Smollett allegedly driving around town with the Osundairos as evidence that they did a “dry run” before the hoax attack.

Smollett began his testimony by walking jurors through his history as an entertainer, from his years as a working child actor to landing a starring role on “Empire.”

He wrote to the show’s creator Lee Daniels personally, and auditioned several times before snagging the role of Jamal Lyon.

“I’d never seen a gay man, let alone a gay Black man, portrayed that way,” said Smollett, who is Black and gay, on the stand.

Smollett never had any problem with the Fox studio, and he started off on “Empire” making at least $25,000 an episode, he testified — apparently an attempt by the defense to head off prosecution arguments that Smollett was dissatisfied with the way the studio treated him.


Video: What to expect from Jussie Smollett trial (ABC 7 Chicago)

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Smollett occasionally smiled as he was asked about his family. About a dozen family members were in the front rows of the gallery, including his mother and siblings.

Among his lawyer’s first questions was whether he grew up rich.

“Goodness, no,” he answered.

His testimony is expected to be some of the centerpiece evidence in the defense’s case.

The day’s first witness was Anthony Moore, a security guard who was making the rounds in Streeterville in the early hours of Jan. 29, 2019, the night of the attack.

He was near the Chicago Burger Company when he saw what appeared to be a white man in a ski mask coming toward him, he testified. He also saw a second person, but couldn’t make out that person’s face, he said. A third person was by the stairs on all fours “like he was looking for something,” he said.

Through Moore’s testimony, the defense hopes to corroborate Smollett’s initial statements to police, in which he said his attackers appeared to be white. Defense attorneys at hearings earlier this year have said they may argue a theory that the prosecutions’ key witnesses — two Black brothers who told police they helped Smollett stage the attack — in fact attacked Smollett outright, with the help of accomplices who may have been white.

Almost a year after the attack, in January 2020, Moore was interviewed by special prosecutors and signed a statement that they typed up, he testified.

That statement, however, does not say he saw a white man. It states that Moore was possibly mistaken by the flashlight he shined into the man’s face.

From the stand Monday, Moore said he felt pressured and threatened by prosecutors “to put something out there that I didn’t see.”

Defense attorneys also called to the stand “Empire” executive producer and showrunner Brett Mahoney, who testified about a threatening letter Smollett was sent. Prosecutors are expected to argue that Smollett orchestrated the hoax because he didn’t think the studio was taking his safety seriously after receiving the note.

But, Mahoney said, they did in fact beef up security on set in response. And Smollett “didn’t want a lot of attention around the letter,” he testified.

Smollett faces six counts of felony disorderly conduct after allegedly staging a hoax hate crime attack on himself and then lying to police about it. The trial is a culmination of almost three years of intense media attention and controversy surrounding the case, which became a national culture-war firestorm.

On Thursday evening, after telling jurors they would have an impromptu three-day weekend, Cook County Judge James Linn said he believed the case could wrap up Monday.

Prosecutors rested their case Thursday after the testimony of their two central witnesses: Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, the brothers who told jurors Smollett recruited them to stage the phony hate crime.

Shortly afterward, the defense began presenting witnesses. So far, a music manager, a publicist and a doctor have testified on Smollett’s behalf, in addition to those called Monday.

The actor told officers in 2019 that he was attacked by two people who yelled racist and homophobic slurs, poured bleach on him, and tied a rope around his neck like a noose. The Osundairos, however, told police Smollett recruited them to stage the attack, turning Smollett from victim to suspect.

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