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Actor Jussie Smollett found guilty of falsely reporting a hate crime

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/9/2021 Sonia Rao
Former "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett, seen arriving Wednesday to the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, faced six charges of felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report about being the victim of a hate crime. (Scott Olson/Getty Images) Former "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett, seen arriving Wednesday to the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, faced six charges of felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report about being the victim of a hate crime. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Jussie Smollett was found guilty Thursday of staging and falsely reporting to police that he had been the victim of a hate crime in Chicago three years ago.

A jury in Cook County, Ill., found the former “Empire” actor guilty on five of six charges of felony disorderly conduct, according to the Associated Press. He was acquitted on one. Sentencing for Smollett, who was not taken into custody, will take place at a later date. His representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Smollett, who is Black and gay, told Chicago police in January 2019 that he had been physically attacked and subjected to racist and homophobic slurs late at night in the city’s Streeterville neighborhood. He said his assailants poured an unknown chemical substance on him and yelled, “This is MAGA country,” referring to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.

When the news hit social media, Smollett, 39, received an outpouring of support from advocacy organizations and fellow celebrities alike, including his on-screen parents, played by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, as well as “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels, who urged his Instagram followers to “love each other regardless of what sexual orientation we are.” But within days, people began to wonder whether Smollett was telling the truth.

In his first television interview after the incident, Smollett told “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts that all the doubt made him angry, and that he would “never be the man that this did not happen to.”

Police questioned Smollett’s alleged attackers in February 2019 and announced the information they gleaned from the interviews had “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.” They later identified the two people as brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who had both worked on “Empire.” Smollett was named a suspect in the case and arrested that same month, charged with disorderly conduct for filing a report about an attack police believed he had staged.

Jussie Smollett testifies on his own behalf in trial over disputed hate crime

That March, a grand jury indicted Smollett on 16 felony counts, to which he pleaded not guilty. But a mere 18 days later, in a stunning reversal, prosecutors dropped the charges, citing Smollett’s volunteer work and lack of a criminal background. The move attracted widespread criticism from Chicago officials, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx was accused of mishandling the case. In June, a judge instead appointed special prosecutor Dan Webb to determine how to handle the situation.


Video: Feb. 20, 2019: Jussie Smollett First Charged With Disorderly Conduct (CBS Chicago)

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In February 2020, Smollett was indicted once again, this time on six counts of felony disorderly conduct. The trial began Nov. 29, 2021 at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, with testimony lasting for a little over a week.

The jury deliberated for more than nine hours following the heated, and at times salacious, trial. Smollett’s attorneys accused the Osundairos of homophobia, arguing that Abimbola Osundairo, who served as Smollett’s personal trainer, had exploited the “sexual tension” between them to advance his own acting career. While testifying, Smollett said he had done drugs and participated in sexual acts with Osundairo.

Osundairo denied he and Smollett had a sexual relationship, but added that as the actor’s friend, trainer and occasional drug dealer, he felt close enough to Smollett to have considered him a brother. He said he did believe Smollett could help his acting career, and that when Smollett asked the brothers to yell slurs and “fake beat him up,” they agreed because Osundairo “felt indebted to Jussie.”

Smollett testified over two days, stating early on that he “came to terms with my sexuality” in his early 20s after volunteering at an organization that fought AIDS in Black communities. He said he was drawn to the role of singer-songwriter Jamal Lyon on “Empire” because he hadn’t seen such a depiction of a gay Black man on television. By the show’s fifth season, Smollett earned $100,000 per episode.

Authorities previously claimed Smollett staged the attack because he was unhappy with his salary on the Fox drama. Webb said Smollett was angry with how the studio responded to a threatening letter he received at work.

Both theories hinge upon the actor wanting to draw attention to himself. He testified that he was instead upset by all the eyes on him. He said a friend had been the one to call the police when he returned to his apartment that night, and that he wouldn’t have done so himself.

“I am a Black man in America,” Smollett said. “I do not trust the police.”

Prosecutors said Smollett gave the Osundairos a $100 bill — to cover supplies for the attack, such as ski masks and “a rope to make it look like a hate crime” — as well as a check for $3,500. Abimbola Osundairo said he considered the check to be payment for both the attack and a food-and-exercise plan he had come up with for Smollett. The actor testified that it had just been for the training plan.

A Chicago Tribune reporter tweeted that Smollett seemed “exasperated” during the cross-examination. Webb pressed Smollett on text messages he sent Osundairo about his delayed flight from New York back to Chicago, suggesting he was updating Osundairo on when to stage the attack. Smollett responded that he and Osundairo had plans to work out after he returned to Chicago.

Smollett confirmed that he told police he believed his assailants were White, but later referred to them as “pale.” He also acknowledged that he said during the “Good Morning America” interview that if he had “described the attacker as a Muslim or Black, I wouldn’t have so many people questioning me.”

Some of the more unusual elements of Smollett’s case related to his representation as well. According to the Chicago Tribune, defense attorney Nenye Uche was barred from questioning either Osundairo because the brothers had spoken with him early on about possibly representing them in the case.

The defense motioned for a mistrial toward the end of the trial’s first week when attorney Tamara Walker accused Judge James Linn of physically lunging at her. Linn denied the allegation and the motion. The prosecutors on Monday filed a petition of contempt against Walker because she spoke to the Chicago Tribune about the incident after agreeing to not communicate with media until after the verdict was announced.

The path to the trial was just as fraught. In addition to the initial dropped charges, plus Foxx’s removal from the case, the city of Chicago and Smollett each sued one another. In April 2019, the city demanded Smollett pay more than $130,000 to cover the cost of police overtime spent looking into the attack. Smollett filed a counterclaim that November, accusing the city of “malicious prosecution.”

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