The former “Empire” actor, who is Black and gay, has repeatedly denied staging an attack on himself, insisting two men struck him, yelled anti-gay and racist remarks, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him on a cold January 2019 night in the Windy City.
Opening statements began after the jury was seated, with prosecutors telling jurors the actor was an accomplice to his own “fake hate crime,” while defense attorneys claimed Smollett was a “victim.”
Special Prosecutor Daniel Webb claimed in opening statements that Smollett devised a “secret plan” in January 2019 with brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo to make it appear a hate crime occurred against him by supporters of Donald Trump and to make producers of his former TV show take more seriously an alleged “hate” letter he received.
Webb claimed there were two main allegations they must prove: that Smollett knowingly reported to members of the Chicago Police Department that an actual hate crime occurred, and that he knew it wasn’t a hate crime, but a “fake hate crime,” as Webb repeated.
The prosecutor prepared the jury for upcoming testimony from either of the Osundairo brothers, who he said will claim they carried out their plan, and all agreed they would punch Smollett just enough to make the attack look real.
“They agreed they should bruise him a little bit,” Webb said. The special prosecutor spoke for a little over an hour, and all the while Jussie Smollett sat and watched intently, surrounded by his attorneys.
Defense counsel Nenye Uche opened directly to the jury, saying there was an “elephant” in the courtroom, and “we shall name this elephant: assumptions.”
“Jussie Smollett is a victim — it’s a shame I have to say it,” said Uche. “This rush to judgment has destroyed Jussie’s life.”
Uche painted a different picture of the Osundairos, claiming the brothers did not see Smollett as a friend, but instead as a “mark” or “target.”
Smollett is “cloaked” with the presumption of innocence, Uche said, adding he has no doubt the jury will “come to the same conclusion we came to — not guilty.”
Once the defense finished, Smollett walked over to his mother and gave her a kiss and a long hug. There were 11 people seated in the family section for Smollett throughout the duration of opening statements.
Fourteen jurors were seated as part of the trial proceedings: six men, six women and two female alternates.
Disorderly conduct charges
Smollett faces six-counts of felony disorderly conduct which the special prosecutor says stem from the actor making four separate alleged false reports to Chicago Police Department officers related to his false claims that he was the victim of a hate crime, while “knowing that he was not the victim of a crime.”
He has pleaded not guilty. As he exited the courthouse for the evening, Smollett told the media, “enjoy your night.”
A disorderly conduct charge for a false crime report is a Class 4 felony in Illinois, punishable by up to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine. A judge would determine whether convictions on multiple counts would yield sentences to run concurrently or consecutively.
The trial begins to wrap a case that captivated a nation for weeks in pre-pandemic times, and has been anything but a boon to Smollett’s acting career.
How the case unfolded
The actor said one of the men shouted, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to then-President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, according to police.
Tracing their steps in reverse, investigators tracked them to a cab ride, and then a rideshare car. A check on the rideshare order ultimately led police to identify the men as the Osundairo brothers, authorities said.
The brothers flew to Nigeria hours after the alleged attack. When they flew back to Chicago on February 13, 2019, investigators met them at customs when they returned, authorities said.
Phone records indicated Smollett talked to the brothers about an hour before the alleged attack, an hour afterward, and after they left the country for Nigeria, authorities said.
In March 2019, Smollett attorney Patricia Brown Holmes said Smollett did pay the brothers, but only for “nutrition and training.”
Smollett’s attorneys always maintained he was innocent. That same month the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx suddenly dropped all charges.
“This entire situation is a reminder that there should never be an attempt to prove a case in the court of public opinion,” the statement reads. “That is wrong. It is a reminder that a victim, in this case Jussie, deserves dignity and respect.”
Johnson and Chicago’s then-mayor, Rahm Emanuel, expressed outrage over the dropped charges.
Latest set of charges filed after special prosecutor steps in
At the time, Smollett attorney Tina Glandian said the special prosecutor “has not found any evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever related to the dismissal of the (first set of) charges against Mr. Smollett.”
“Rather, the charges were appropriately dismissed the first time because they were not supported by the evidence,” Glandian said.
Webb said the second grand jury’s investigation “revealed that Jussie Smollett planned and participated in a staged hate crime attack, and thereafter made numerous false statements to Chicago Police Department officers on multiple occasions, reporting a heinous hate crime that he, in fact, knew had not occurred.”
Webb’s office also released a report in August 2020 saying there was evidence county prosecutors had abused their discretion in dropping Smollett’s first charges, but also there was no evidence supporting criminal charges against them.
CNN’s Bill Kirkos, Brad Parks, Ryan Young, Madeline Holcombe, Holly Yan, Eliott C. McLaughlin and Omar Jimenez contributed to this report.