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.”