Testimony is set to begin Tuesday in the trial of ex-“Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, who prosecutors say staged a homophobic and racist attack in Chicago nearly three years ago but whose defense attorney says is “a real victim” of a “real crime.”
Special prosecutor Dan Webb told jurors during opening statements late Monday that Smollett recruited two brothers — who worked with him on the TV show “Empire” — to help him carry out a fake attack in January 2019 because he believed the television studio didn’t take hate mail he had received seriously.
Smollett then reported the alleged attack to Chicago police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 staff hours on the investigation, Webb said.
The actor told police he was attacked by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, igniting political divisions throughout the country.
“When he reported the fake hate crime, that was a real crime,” Webb said.
Defense attorney Nenye Uche said the two brothers attacked Smollett because they didn’t like him and that a $3,500 check the actor paid the men was for training so he could prepare for an upcoming music video.
Uche also suggested a third attacker was involved and told jurors there is not a “shred“ of physical and forensic evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.
“Jussie Smollett is a real victim,” Uche said.
The trial is being held at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago; Smollett is charged with felony disorderly conduct. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said it’s likely that if Smollett is convicted he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.
Webb told jurors Smollett was unhappy about how the studio handled a letter he received that included a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree and “MAGA,” a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan.
Webb said police have not determined who wrote the letter. However, Uche countered that Smollett had turned down extra security when the studio offered it.
Webb said Smollett then “devised this fake crime,” holding a “dress rehearsal” with the two brothers, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and “MAGA.”
Smollett also told the brothers to buy ski masks, red hats and “a rope to make it look like a hate crime,” Webb told jurors. The brothers used a $100 bill that Smollett gave them to buy the supplies, the prosecutor said.
Webb said Smollett wanted the attack captured on surveillance video, but the camera he thought would record the hoax was pointed in the wrong direction. He also said the original plan called for the men to throw gasoline on Smollett but that they opted for bleach instead because it would be safer.
Whether Smollett, who is black and gay, will testify remains an open question. But the siblings will take the witness stand.
Uche portrayed the brothers as unreliable, saying their story has changed while Smollett’s has not, and that when police searched their home they found heroin and guns.
“They are going to lie to your face,” Uche told the jury.
Uche also said evidence “will show a tremendous rush to judgment by various police officials,” and he said prosecutors’ claim about paying for a fake attack by check doesn’t make sense.
“At the end of the day, they want you to believe Jussie was stupid enough to pay for a hoax with a check but was smart enough to pay (for supplies) with a $100 bill,” Uche said.
As for Uche’s suggestion that another attacker may have been involved, buried in nearly 500 pages of Chicago Police Department reports is a statement from an area resident who says she saw a white man with “reddish brown hair” who appeared to be waiting for someone that night. She told a detective that when the man turned away from her, she “could see hanging out from underneath his jacket what appeared to be a rope.”
Her statement could back up Smollett’s contention that his attackers draped a makeshift noose around his neck. Further, if she testified that the man was white, it would support Smollett’s statements — widely ridiculed because the brothers, who come from Nigeria, are black — that he saw pale or white skin around the eyes of one of his masked attackers.
Twelve jurors plus two alternates were sworn in late Monday for the trial that Judge James Linn said likely will take about a week.
Cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom, and the proceedings are not being live-streamed, unlike in other recent high-profile trials.
The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.
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