CHICAGO (CN) — Cook County Judge James Linn sentenced former Empire star Jussie Smollett to 30 months of probation on Thursday, including 150 days in Cook County Jail. The sentence, which also includes an order to pay $120,000 to the city of Chicago, follows a criminal trial in December which saw Smollett convicted of staging a bogus hate crime against himself in January 2019.
"What Mr. Smollett did... discouraged [hate crime victims] from coming forward... to benefit himself," special prosecutor Dan Webb said at the sentencing, advocating for a harsh sentence.
The sentence rebuts Smollett's lead defense attorney Nenye Uche, who has said since December that Smollett's five criminal disorderly conduct convictions didn't warrant time in a cell.
“This is a class 4 felony. It’s right above a misdemeanor,” Uche said in December.
Uche also pointed out to Linn on Thursday that in prior class 4 felony cases, he had avoided assigning prison time as part of the sentence.
In delivering the sentence, Linn said that he considered the "totality" of factors affecting the high profile case — weighing the social justice work Smollett has engaged in throughout his career to what he agreed with Webb was the "real damage" Smollett had done to victims of hate crimes and to the public trust in the legal system. Linn also took time to scold Smollett before delivering the sentence, saying that no punishment he could dole out would match the damage Smollett had done to himself.
"You've turned your life upside down with your shenanigans," Linn told Smollett from the bench.
The openly gay, Black actor's case began when he alleged to Chicago police in January 2019 that he had been attacked by two men wearing MAGA hats while walking around Chicago's wealthy Streeterville neighborhood late at night. He claimed that the men poured bleach on his clothes, draped a noose around his neck and shouted racist and homophobic slurs at him before running off.
The validity of this claim came into question as police investigated the alleged hate crime, particularly after they interrogated Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo — a pair of young Nigerian-American brothers who had worked with Smollett on the set of Empire. The brothers, arrested in February 2019 upon returning to Chicago from a trip to visit family in Nigeria, told police that Smollett had hired them to help him fake the hate crime.
The city of Chicago then sued Smollett for $130,000, accusing him of staging the attack and wasting police department time and resources. A Cook County grand jury indicted Smollett on 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct in March of 2019 for making false police reports, only for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office to drop them all that same month. Text messages from Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx showed she believed Smollett was a “washed up” actor who had been overcharged for a non-violent crime.
Unsatisfied, retired Illinois Appellate Court judge Sheila O’Brien filed a petition with the Cook County Criminal Court soon after to renew the case, saying that Foxx’s actions seemed suspicious and that she was worried Smollett had played the legal system. County Judge Michael Toomin agreed, appointing Webb and his law office Winston & Strawn in August 2019 as special prosecutors for the case. A new grand jury indicted Smollett on six new criminal disorderly conduct charges in February 2020, the same six charges he faced at trial in December 2021.
Besides the new charges, Winston & Strawn also found that the Cook County State' Attorney's Office may have violated legal ethics in how they handled the 2019 charges.
"The case was dismissed under, at best, unusual or mysterious circumstances," Webb said a week after the trial concluded in December.
Throughout this entire saga, right up until his sentencing concluded on Thursday, Smollett maintained his innocence. This seemed to incense both Webb and Linn; on Thursday both men accused him of perjury when he took the stand in his own defense in December.
"You're not a victim of a hate crime. You're a charlatan... and that's sad," Linn told Smollett on Thursday. In turn, Webb told Linn that Smollett had offered up "not a single act of contrition," in arguing for the former star to receive jail time.
Prosecutors claimed during the December trial that Smollett wanted to stage the hate crime in response to a real anonymous hate letter he received mid-January 2019 on the set of Empire, which depicted him hanging from a tree and called him a "faggot nigger." They also posited he may have been angling for higher pay from the studio for his work on Empire.
“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 Osundairo told prosecutor Samuel Mendenhall at the December criminal trial.
Linn said that he personally didn't think Smollett did anything for money, instead opining that Smollett acted out of a desire for attention.
He said that Smollett had some "wonderful qualities," citing the outpouring of support Smollett received from friends, family and organizations that touted his bona fides as a crusader for Black and LGBTQ social justice issues. These bona fides included his volunteer efforts with the NAACP, his donations to charitable non-profits and his work with the activist organization Artists for a New South Africa, among others.
But Linn also told the former star that "You have another side of you that is phenomenally arrogant and selfish."
Smollett's supporters thoroughly disagreed with this assessment, and Linn's sentence. Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, vouched for Smollett in a letter of support, as did the Black Lives Matter organization. Smollett's older brother Joel Smollett Jr. argued that sending another young Black man to jail was not the way to rebuild public trust in the legal system, especially among the low-income Black and Latino communities that surrounded the courthouse itself.
"There's been a lot of talk about restoring public trust. In my opinion, you don't restore public trust... with a stiff jail sentence," Joel said.
Smollett's grandmother Molly Smollett was even more vocal of her support. She claimed alongside Smollett's attorneys that he had been the victim of a public smear campaign by the media and a racist legal system even before the trial began.
"I ask you not to send him to prison. If you do, send me along with him," Molly told Linn.
When Linn did decide to send Smollett to prison, alongside slapping him with a $120,000 fine, the usually stoic former actor finally seemed to break.
"I'm not suicidal," he told Linn several times after the sentence was handed down. "I'm not suicidal. If anything happens to me when I go in there, I did not do it to myself."
Smollett's attorneys told judge Linn that they plan to appeal his decision. However, he refused to stay the jail sentence while the appeal is processed.
"The wheels of justice turn slowly," Linn said. "But sometimes the hammer of justice has to fall."
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