The actor Jussie Smollett made himself the victim of a staged hate crime in 2019 to draw the attention of his colleagues on the television show “Empire” after he decided they had failed to take an earlier written threat seriously, a prosecutor said in a Chicago court on Monday.
Dan K. Webb, the special prosecutor, laid out what he saw as Mr. Smollett’s motive in opening arguments of the actor’s trial on criminal charges that he lied to the police when he reported he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack.
In January 2019, Mr. Webb said, Mr. Smollett received an anonymous “actual hate letter,” which included a homophobic slur and a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree. The letter included the acronym “MAGA” made of cutout newspaper and magazine letters, he said, a reference to former President Donald J. Trump’s campaign slogan. Law enforcement has not been able to determine who sent the letter, Mr. Webb said.
“Therefore, he devised this fake hate crime to take place so that the ‘Empire’ studio would take this more seriously,” he said of Mr. Smollett, “because this fake hate crime would get media attention.”
Nearly three years ago, when Mr. Smollett reported that he had been assaulted, he was primarily known for “Empire,” a drama in which he played a son vying for control of his father’s music empire. He later lost that role after being indicted on charges that he had lied to the police, who concluded that he had paid two brothers to stage the attack.
After a drawn-out and tumultuous legal process, the trial began at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago with the selection of 12 jurors and three alternates. Mr. Smollett arrived at the courthouse Monday morning, clutching the arm of his mother, Janet Smollett, and sat with several family members as the opening arguments began.
Mr. Smollett is standing trial on six counts of felony disorderly conduct associated with the reports he had made to the police. The grand-jury indictment asserts he had “no reasonable ground for believing that such an offense had been committed.”
When his account of being attacked on a late-night run to pick up a tuna sandwich became public it struck a chord in a politically divided nation confronting the persistent threat of racism. The actor told the police his attackers poured bleach on him, placed a rope around his neck and yelled, “This is MAGA country.”
Lawmakers, activists and celebrities reacted furiously to the incident, but the dialogue shifted abruptly in February 2019, when the police told the public that Mr. Smollett had paid two men $3,500 to stage the attack. The police said they had a copy of the check as well as phone records showing that Mr. Smollett spoke to the brothers before and after the alleged attack took place.
Comedians used the story as a punchline. Mr. Trump said it was a smear on his supporters, while liberal politicians condemned it as a disservice to victims of hate crimes.
“I’m sad, frustrated and disappointed,” Vice President Kamala Harris, who was a senator and presidential candidate at the time, wrote on Twitter. “When anyone makes false claims to police, it not only diverts resources away from serious investigations but it makes it more difficult for other victims of crime to come forward.”
But Mr. Smollett has maintained his innocence, pleading not guilty to the charges and insisting the attack happened just as he described.
“They won’t let this go,” Mr. Smollett said in an Instagram interview last year. “There is an example being made, and the sad part is that there’s an example being made of someone that did not do what they’re being accused of.”
Initially, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dropped the felony charges against the actor, saying that Mr. Smollett had forfeited his $10,000 bond and explaining that he was not a threat to public safety and had a record of service to the community. Chicago’s police superintendent at the time, Eddie Johnson, and its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, suggested Mr. Smollett was getting special treatment because of his celebrity status.
Kim Foxx, Chicago’s top prosecutor, stood by the decision.
“Yes, falsely reporting a hate crime makes me angry, and anyone who does that deserves the community’s outrage,” Ms. Foxx wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed after her office dropped the charges. “But, as I’ve said since before I was elected, we must separate the people at whom we are angry from the people of whom we are afraid.”
In the months that followed, much of the discussion surrounding the case focused on how prosecutors had handled it.
Ms. Foxx had recused herself from overseeing the case to avoid any perception that she had a conflict of interest after disclosing that she had communicated with Mr. Smollett’s representatives when he was still considered a victim. She delegated it to a deputy, but text messages later showed that Ms. Foxx had remained closely engaged with the case, expressing concern to a colleague that the office was treating the actor too harshly.
Later in 2019, a judge appointed Mr. Webb as a special prosecutor to review whether Mr. Smollett should be recharged and to assess whether there had been any misconduct in the way the case was managed by the state’s attorney’s office.
Mr. Webb renewed charges against Mr. Smollett in February 2020. He later determined that the state’s attorney’s office had not violated the law, but did abuse its discretion in deciding to drop charges and put out false or misleading public statements about why it did so.
With the start of the trial, the focus turned back to the facts of what happened on Jan. 29, 2019, at around 2 a.m., when Mr. Smollett was walking near his apartment in downtown Chicago.
Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, the brothers at the center of the Smollett saga, told the police that Mr. Smollett directed them to shout epithets at him and place a noose over his neck. According to a cache of text messages related to the case, Mr. Smollett texted Abimbola Osundairo four days before the attack, saying, “Might need your help on the low. You around to meet up and talk face to face?”
The brothers told the police that Mr. Smollett met with them later that day and asked them to help stage the attack and again two days later to discuss the details. A lawyer on Mr. Smollett’s team, Tina Glandian, had said in 2019 that her client’s text message was asking for help getting herbal steroids in Nigeria, not help staging the attack.
The suggested motive that Mr. Webb laid out differed from what the police said in February 2019: that Mr. Smollett had planned the attack because he was upset about his salary on “Empire” and was seeking publicity. The police also accused him of writing the threatening letter himself.
Ms. Glandian declined to comment last week on whether her client would be testifying at a trial that has been delayed for months as the court considered questions such as whether Mr. Smollett could be represented by a lawyer, Nenye Uche, whom the Osundairo brothers said they spoke to about the case in 2019. (Mr. Uche denied he had spoken to them.) Prosecutors opposed Mr. Uche’s role as lead lawyer for Mr. Smollett, calling it a conflict of interest.
Judge James B. Linn ultimately said he could remain as Mr. Smollett’s lawyer but could not cross-examine the brothers.
In the courthouse earlier this year, Mr. Smollett said little but called the proceedings a “dog and pony show.”
Mr. Smollett, 39, is also battling a lawsuit in which the city of Chicago asks the actor to pay back the funds used to investigate his report.
In recent days, the actor has been making a re-entry into the public sphere, appearing on a red carpet for a screening of a movie he directed, “B-Boy Blues.”
“I just don’t really see, honestly, what staying quiet has really done, where it has gotten me,” Mr. Smollett said in the Instagram interview last year. “There would be no reason for me to do something like this.”
OnMyWay Is The #1 Distracted Driving Mobile App In The Nation!
OnMyWay, based in Charleston, SC, The Only Mobile App That Pays its Users Not to Text and Drive.
The #1 cause of death among young adults ages 16-27 is Car Accidents, with the majority related to Distracted Driving.
OnMyWay’s mission is to reverse this epidemic through positive rewards. Users get paid for every mile they do not text and drive and can refer their friends to get compensated for them as well.
The money earned can then be used for Cash Cards, Gift Cards, Travel Deals and Much, Much More….
The company also makes it a point to let users know that OnMyWay does NOT sell users data and only tracks them for purposes of providing a better experience while using the app.
The OnMyWay app is free to download and is currently available on both the App Store for iPhones and Google Play for Android @ OnMyWay; Drive Safe, Get Paid.
Download App Now – https://r.onmyway.com
Sponsors and advertisers can contact the company directly through their website @ www.onmyway.com.