Friday, September 29, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Friday, September 29, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Jussie Smollett found guilty of staging hate crime

The jury convicted the actor on five of the six counts of disorderly conduct he had been charged with.

CHICAGO (CN) — Former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett was convicted of criminal disorderly conduct Thursday for falsely reporting to police that he was the victim of a hate crime.

The openly gay, Black actor was found guilty on five of six counts of violating the section of Illinois’ disorderly conduct law that prohibits false reports to police, after claiming he was attacked in Chicago on Jan. 29, 2019. He was only found not guilty of falsely reporting an aggravated battery; a follow-up report he made to detectives two weeks after the attack.

Smollett faces up to three years in prison, though Smollett’s lead defense attorney Nenye Uche said it is unlikely he will serve prison time given his lack of criminal history and the relatively mild charges.

“This is a class 4 felony. It’s right above a misdemeanor,” Uche said following the trial.

The jury deliberated for over nine hours, beginning Wednesday afternoon, before reaching its decision.

The road leading to the verdict begins in mid-January 2019, when Smollett received a bigoted hate letter on the set of “Empire” from an unknown sender. The letter depicted Smollett hanging from a tree and called him a “faggot nigger."

“We were obviously all very upset. No one would think that Jussie … would be the subject of this hate mail,” showrunner Brett Mahoney testified on Monday.

Mahoney said Monday that he and other members of the “Empire” crew chose not to make the letter public. He added that they did increase Smollett’s security, something that vexed the actor.

As an escape, both from security and the pressures of performing, Smollett said he would often do drugs with his friend Abimbola Osundairo. Smollett met Abimbola – who he called “Bola” or “Bon” – while he was working as a background actor on the set of “Empire.”

“I liked it. It got me away from everything else, so to speak,” Smollett said.

Here the narratives offered by the state prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case begin to differ. According to the prosecution, Smollett and Abimbola’s relationship was purely platonic. Prosecutors claimed that, frustrated by the studio’s response to the hate letter and perhaps angling for higher pay, Smollet recruited Abimbola, and later Abimbola’s older brother Olabinjo, to help him carry out a hoax hate attack. The goal, Abimbola said in his Monday testimony, was to attract media attention.

“Who was the audience?” defense attorney Shay Allen asked Abimbola last Thursday.

“According to Jussie, the media,” Abimbola replied.

Olabinjo corroborated his brother’s statement in his own testimony.

“He went on to explain that he got some hate mail ... and had this crazy idea of getting attacked by two Trump supporters so he could post it on social media,” Olabinjo told prosecutor Samuel Mendenhall.

The brothers testified that they met Smollett at a prearranged spot in Chicago around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, shouted racist and homophobic slurs at him, poured bleach on his clothes and wrapped a rope around his face, all while dressed as Donald Trump supporters. Following this attack, prosecutors said Smollett altered the appearance of the rope to look more like a noose and hampered the subsequent police investigation by withholding evidence such as his phone and medical records. The lead investigator in the case, former Chicago Police Department detective Michael Theis, said this only increased investigators’ suspicion that the hate crime was a hoax.

“At the end of the investigation, we determined that the alleged hate crime was actually a staged event,” Theis said in his testimony on Nov. 30, later adding, "Everything was way too coincidental."

Smollett’s defense team gives a different account. In their version of events, the Osundairo brothers were conmen who saw Smollett as a mark for favors. Defense attorneys also put forward the idea that Olabinjo may been violently homophobic, based both on his 2011 conviction for aggravated battery and on texts he sent a friend in which he calls an unnamed man a “fruity ass” and says he’s “done with gaylords.”


“They were wolves in the hen house,” defense attorney Nenye Uche said Wednesday in closing arguments.

According to the defense, Smollett was legitimately targeted by the Osundairo brothers either working alone or with a third, unnamed white individual, perhaps as part of a scheme to have him hire them on as bodyguards.

“You attacked Jussie, because you wanted to scare him into hiring you as security … so you could move back to L.A. and get that $5,000 a week salary,” Allen said to Abimbola on Thursday, who denied the accusation.

Regardless of the narrative, the next chapter in the case is undisputed. Based on testimony from the Osuandairo brothers and the results of Theis’ investigation, a Cook County grand jury indicted Smollett on 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct in March of 2019. Those counts were quickly dropped by the Cook County’s State’s Attorney’s Office. It later became public that the Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx dropped the charges because she thought Smollett was a “washed up celeb” who had been over-charged.

Unsatisfied, the county convened another grand jury and charged Smollett with six new counts of felony disorderly conduct in February of 2020. Chicago attorney Dan Webb and his legal team from the law firm Winston & Strawn were chosen to act as special state prosecutors in Foxx’s stead.

This decision was followed by a year of attorney meetings and discovery and eight days of trial, but now the nearly three-year legal drama has come to a close. Both the prosecution and defense spent the final moments of their closing arguments Wednesday urging the jury to see their side of the story.

Webb said finding Smollett guilty was only common sense, given the weight of evidence against him.

“When you decide this case as a jury, you are allowed to use your common sense,” he said.

Uche, meanwhile, urged the jurors not to condemn a man he said he truly believed was innocent.

“I need constitutional warriors in that jury room because I can’t speak in there,” he said.

Presiding Cook County Judge James Linn dismissed the jury after they reached their verdict, thanking them for their hard work. Linn also released Smollett on a recognizance bond, choosing not to turn him over to police custody. Smollett left the Cook County Courthouse with his family without giving a statement.

In a press conference following the trial, Webb told reporters that he and his legal team worked pro bono.

“We made the decision, if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it for the public,” Webb said.

He also said, alleging that Smollett lied on the witness stand, that he would bring up the issue of perjury at Smollett’s sentencing hearings. Uche maintained that his client did not lie on the stand, but is “absolutely, 100% innocent.” He told reporters that they plan to appeal the jury’s decision, which he called “inconsistent.”

“We feel 100% confident this case will be won on appeal,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Osundairo brothers also gave a statement, in which she said that she and her clients regretted the events leading to this trial, but that they were confident people would forgive Smollett in time.

“You are still your mother’s child. … People will forgive you … just come clean,” the spokeswoman said.

No sentencing date was set Thursday night. Judge Linn and the lawyers will convene Jan. 27 to discuss that and other next steps.

Follow @@djbyrnes1
Categories / Criminal, Entertainment, Trials

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.