Nearly three years after Jussie Smollett reported to police that he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack, the ex-"Empire" actor's trial started Monday in Chicago. His attorney rejected prosecutors' allegations that he staged the incident and said Smollett was a "real victim" of a "real crime."
Smollett, 39, who arrived at the courthouse with his mother and other family members, is charged with felony disorderly conduct after law enforcement and prosecutors said he lied about what happened in the early morning hours of Jan. 29, 2019, in downtown Chicago. Disorderly conduct, a Class 4 felony, carries a sentence of up to three years in prison, but experts have said that if Smollett is convicted, it's more likely he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.
Smollett, who has stayed away from the spotlight since the incident, has maintained his innocence. His career has been derailed dramatically.
Twelve jurors plus two alternates were sworn in late Monday for a trial that Judge James Linn expects to take about one week.
It remains unclear whether Smollett will testify. But key witnesses will be brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who say Smollett wrote them a check to stage the assault. They are expected to characterize Smollett as the star and director of an "attack" in full view of a surveillance camera that he mistakenly believed would record the whole event.
Jurors may see surveillance video from more than four dozen cameras that police reviewed to trace the brothers' movements before and after the reported attack, as well as a video showing the brothers purchasing supplies hours earlier. Special prosecutor Dan Webb told jurors that prosecutors have hundreds of hours of video, and a still shot from a camera near Smollett’s condo that shows him walking upstairs after the alleged attack, with a clothesline around his neck and carrying a sandwich he bought that evening.
The trial comes more than a month after the judge denied a last-ditch effort to dismiss the criminal case against Smollett on Oct. 15, setting a date for the trial. Linn allowed Nenye Uche, one of the newest members of Smollett's team of defense lawyers, to plead for dismissal again.
Among his most passionate arguments, Uche said Smollett had been offered a non-prosecution deal by previous prosecutors in the Cook County state's attorney's office and that Smollett had kept his side of the bargain, having already performed community service and given up a $10,000 bond under the deal.
November 2021: Jussie Smollett's trial begins in Chicago with jury selection, two alleged attackers
Defense attorney Uche said Monday that brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo 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 – not as payment for staging a hate crime, as prosecutors allege. 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.
Uche made his opening statement after Webb told jurors that the actor recruited the brothers to help him carry out the fake attack. "When he reported the fake hate crime that was a real crime,” said Webb. He also 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.
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, including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and “MAGA.”
He 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.
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 the prosecutors' claim that Smollett paabout paying for a fake attack by check doesn't make sense. “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,” he 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 comments 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.
January 2019: Smollett files police report alleging assault in Chicago; police question claims
On Jan. 22, Smollett claimed he received a racist and homophobic threatening letter at the Chicago studio where "Empire" was being filmed. Police later said they believed the actor sent the letter himself.
On Jan. 29, Smollett told police he was attacked by two men in downtown Chicago at 2 a.m. and said they used racist and homophobic slurs. He also reported they wrapped a rope around his neck and poured an "unknown substance" on him. Smollett, according to police, told detectives attackers also yelled "This is MAGA country!" before fleeing the scene.
The following day, Chicago police announced they reviewed hundreds of hours of surveillance camera footage, including of Smollett walking downtown, but none showed the attack. Police then obtained and released images of two "persons of interest" to question.
On Feb. 1, Smollett issued a statement saying he's OK, that he's working with authorities and has been "100 percent factual and consistent on every level." The next day, Smollett opened a concert in West Hollywood, California, with an emotional speech, saying he had to play the show because he couldn't let his attackers win.
On Feb. 13, Chicago police picked up two Nigerian brothers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after police learned at least one worked on "Empire." Police questioned them and searched their apartment, arresting them on suspicion of assault. Two days later, the brothers were released without charges and a police spokesman said they were no longer suspects.
The following week, police said the investigation "shifted" after detectives questioned the brothers, and request a follow-up interview with Smollett. His lawyers said he felt "victimized" by reports that he played a role in the assault.
On Feb. 19, Chicago's top prosecutor, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, recused herself from the investigation. Her office said the decision was made "out of an abundance of caution … to address potential questions of impartiality based upon familiarity with potential witnesses in the case."
As February came to a close, prosecutors charged Smollett with disorderly conduct for filing a false police report about the alleged attack. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett staged the attack because he was unhappy with his salary and wanted publicity. Investigators said they have a $3,500 check that Smollett used to pay the two brothers to help him. Smollett's character was removed from the final two episodes of the "Empire" season.
On March 7, a Cook County grand jury handed up charges for each time the actor "knowingly" told police he was the victim of "battery, a hate crime, and an aggravated battery," amounting to 16 counts. Prosecutors said he knew at the time "there was no reasonable ground for believing that such offenses had been committed."
On March 14, the actor pleaded not guilty. The following week, Smollett's attorneys said charges alleging he lied to police were dropped.
"After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett’s volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case," read a statement from the office of the Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, sent to USA TODAY in 2019 by her spokeswoman, Tandra Simonton.
On March 28, however, a city official said Chicago was seeking $130,000 from Smollett to cover the cost of the investigation into his reported attack, which police believed was staged.
On April 11, the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit seeking to recoup the investigation costs.
Days later, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office released thousands of documents in the Smollett case in response to open records requests, including a text from Foxx calling Smollett a "washed up celeb" who was overcharged.
On April 23, the brothers who said they helped Smollett stage the attack filed a defamation lawsuit against the actor's attorneys.
August 2019: Judge names special prosecutor to investigate
On Aug. 23, a judge named former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb as special prosecutor to investigate why charges against Smollett were dropped.
On Feb. 11, Webb said the grand jury returned six-count indictment against Smollett, accusing him of lying to police. On Feb. 24, Smollett pleaded not guilty to restored charges.
In a rare interview with BET correspondent and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill on Sept. 10, Smollett maintained his innocence and called his legal troubles "frustrating."
Smollett also said in the interview that he believed law enforcement and the media were "trying to sell" an agenda by highlighting only certain aspects of the case to paint the picture of a guilty man.
"When I step back, I can see the way they served the narrative to the people: That it was intentionally created to make people doubt from the very, very beginning. But at the same time, I'm not really living for the people that don't believe," he said.