A jury in Chicago found the actor Jussie Smollett guilty on Thursday of falsely reporting to police that he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic assault in 2019, an attack that investigators concluded was a hoax directed by the actor himself.
With its finding, after more than nine hours of deliberation, the 12-person jury indicated it had chosen to believe the accounts of two brothers who testified that Smollett had asked them to mildly injure him as part of a publicity stunt.
Smollett, wearing a dark gray suit and a blue shirt, sat upright in his chair, hands clasped, staring directly at the jury just after the verdict was read.
Daniel K Webb, the special prosecutor who handled the case, said afterward that Smollett only made matters worse by continuing to stand by his account at trial.
Smollett's account captured the attention of a politically polarised nation concerned with rising hate crime reports and the persistent threat of racism
“This jury worked so hard,” Webb said, “and for Mr Smollett to come up before them and lie for hours and hours and hours – that really compounded his misconduct.”
The case dated back to the frigid early hours of January 29th, 2019, when Smollett – known then for his role in the Fox music-industry drama Empire – told police he had been the victim of a hate crime near his apartment building in Chicago. Smollett said one of his attackers had even yelled, “This is Maga country.”
His account captured the attention of a politically polarised nation concerned with rising hate crime reports and the persistent threat of racism. But public support for Smollett quickly evaporated when investigators came to the conclusion three weeks later that he had staged the attack on himself.
Chicago officials, upset at the amount of police work that was spent on the case, have sued Smollett to recoup some of the city’s costs. They were similarly critical in 2019 when the office of the city’s top prosecutor, Kim Foxx, who early on had recused herself from the case, citing a potential conflict, quietly dropped the charges in exchange for Smollett’s agreement to forfeit his $10,000 (€8,850) bond and perform community service.
The case was later revived by Webb, who reviewed that decision and ultimately announced that a grand jury had charged Smollett with six counts of felony disorderly conduct. Smollett was convicted on five counts Thursday, relating to conversations he had with police just after the attack. He was acquitted on the sixth count, which related to a follow-up conversation with an investigator two weeks later.
The actor faces up to three years in prison. The judge did not set a sentencing date and released him on bond. His defence team said Smollett would appeal.
“We remain confident that we’re going to come back and he’s going to be vindicated,” said Nenye Uche, one of the actor’s lawyers.
Prosecutors argued in court that Smollett had instructed two brothers, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, on all of the details of the attack, specifying that they should punch him only hard enough to create a bruise, pour bleach on his clothing and place a rope around his neck like a noose. Prosecutors faulted Smollett for not co-operating adequately with the investigation by baulking at turning over evidence like his cellphone.
“Mr Smollett didn’t want the crime solved,” Webb said during his closing argument Wednesday. “He wanted to report it as a hate crime; he wanted media exposure; but he didn’t want the brothers apprehended.” Webb told the jury that Smollett staged the attack because he had received a death threat in the mail and was upset by the muted response of the producers behind Empire, the television show on which he starred.
The defence came forward with a sharply different account of Smollett’s attitudes and behaviours. The actor had not been upset by the TV studio’s response to the letter, his lawyers said, and had, in fact, turned down its offer to have security drive Smollett to and from the set. They said the Osundairo brothers were liars who had attacked Smollett to scare him into hiring them as bodyguards, and who concocted a story to avoid prosecution themselves.
Smollett’s lawyer Uche argued that prosecutors had not established that the actor had a clear motive for any scheme, and that, in fact, his client had every reason not to have faked an attack.
“His lack of motive is pretty obvious: Media attention, he doesn’t like it,” Uche said. What is more, he said, Smollett had a music video shoot coming up and could not afford his face getting bruised.
Smollett, who is 39, took the stand and testified for more than seven hours in an effort to counter the narrative of the brothers, who had detailed how Smollett planned the attack. He said his interactions with the brothers in the days and hours leading up to the attack had been harmless. A “dry run” in his car that the brothers had described to the jury as a planning exercise two days before the attack was really an aimless drive through Chicago smoking marijuana.
But the jury chose to believe the brothers. Abimbola Osundairo, a twenty-eight year old fitness aficionado who had appeared on Empire in minor roles, testified that the planning began when Smollett, whom he was helping train for the music video, texted him for help with something “on the low”.
“He said he wanted me to beat him up,” Osundairo said of their meeting. “I looked puzzled, and then he explained he wanted me to fake beat him up.”
Osundairo said he agreed to the plan because he felt “indebted” to Smollett for getting him a role as a stand-in on “Empire.” Olabinjo Osundairo, who is 30, had also appeared on Empire in minor roles and said he participated to “curry favour” with Smollett.
The Osundairos testified that Smollett staged the attack at an intersection near his apartment where he hoped the encounter would be captured on a nearby surveillance camera. The camera ended up being pointed in a different direction.
But the prosecution had other surveillance footage of Smollett’s car circling the area where the attack occurred on the day of the reported dry run. Prosecutors also showed the jury messages that Smollett sent to Abimbola Osundairo in the hours before the attack, updating him on his delayed flight to Chicago. Investigators said he was alerting the brothers that the time for their planned hoax would have to be moved back.
At one point, prosecutors showed jurors a $3,500 check from Smollett to the brothers, which Abimbola Osundairo said he believed was, at least in part, payment for carrying out the attack.
Smollett said the payment was only for a diet and exercise plan. He denied he had been texting the brothers information to delay any planned attack, and said that many followers on social media responded to his posts about the flight delay. And he said he had set up the meeting “on the low” with Abimbola Osundairo to arrange help in getting herbal weight-loss steroids from Nigeria that are not legal in the United States.
Smollett denied having attempted to thwart the investigation, asserting that he had not turned over his cellphone because he did not trust the Chicago police to keep its contents private. Similarly, he said, he did not think to call police in the first place to report the attack – his creative director did.
“I am a black man in America,” Smollett said. “I do not trust police. Sorry, that is the truth.”
Though composed and confident during his first day of cross-examination on Monday, Smollett seemed flustered during heated exchanges with Webb on Tuesday. The prosecutor made a point of challenging Smollett’s initial identification of his attackers, who wore ski masks, as white. The Osundairo brothers were black, Webb pointed out, and he questioned how Smollett could not have recognised the voice or build of Abimbola Osundairo, whom the actor had said he spent a good bit of time with socially.
Smollett said that during the moment he was being assaulted he did not think to say, “Bola, is that you?”
“Sir,” Webb said later on, “do you think by claiming this person was white it would bring more credibility for a fake hate crime?”
“You’d have to ask someone who did a fake crime,” Smollett replied.
The defence also worked to undercut the credibility of the brothers, seeking to portray Olabinjo Osundairo as homophobic and someone who may have felt antagonistic toward Smollett, who is gay.
Osundairo denied any bias and said that he had “no hate for anybody”.
The prosecution’s case, in the end, relied heavily on the confidence it had that the testimony of the Osundairo brothers, bolstered by surveillance tapes and text messages, would be convincing.
After the verdict, their lawyer, Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez, said: "Even though they're satisfied with the results and they had expectations this would be the results, there is still a part of them that is hurting. They regretted their role in this." – This article originally appeared in The New York Times