Nearly three years later, Smollett’s trial is finally underway. Here’s what you need to know.
In January 2019, the actor, who is Black and gay, told Chicago police he was attacked late at night in the Streeterville neighborhood by two people who poured a chemical substance on him and wrapped a rope around his neck. He said his assailants yelled racist and homophobic slurs at him, and made reference to the then-president’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
Smollett, 39, starred at the time on the popular Fox drama “Empire.” The news of his alleged assault made waves as he continued to speak out. Advocacy organizations and celebrities, including his co-stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, publicly expressed support for Smollett. Lee Daniels, who co-created the series with Danny Strong, posted a video on Instagram urging his followers to “love each other regardless of what sexual orientation we are, because it shows we are united on a united front.”
But within days, doubts about whether Smollett was telling the truth began to circulate on social media. They eventually reached local media. In his first interview after the alleged attack, Smollett told ABC’s Robin Roberts he was angered by people not believing him, and that he would “never be the man that this did not happen to.” Hours after the interview aired, Chicago police announced they had identified two “persons of interest” related to the case.
Brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo were brought in for questioning in mid-February and released without being charged. The next day, police said information obtained from their interviews with the brothers had “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.”
Authorities wanted to speak again with Smollett, whose attorneys issued a statement saying he had been “further victimized” by claims that he “played a role in his own attack.”
The tide had already turned. Police named Smollett a suspect in the criminal investigation and, later that February, arrested him on a disorderly conduct charge for allegedly filing a false police report. They said at a media briefing that Smollett was “dissatisfied with his salary” for working on “Empire,” and that they had in their possession a $3,500 check that Smollett had allegedly paid the Osundairos with to stage the attack.
According to Cook County, Ill., prosecutors, the Osundairos had both previously worked on “Empire.” Abimbola Osundairo is said to have been a close friend of Smollett’s who had been a stand-in for a love interest of Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon. Prosecutors alleged Smollett told the brothers what to say during the attack and also gave them a $100 bill to cover the cost of the rope, ski masks, gloves and red baseball caps resembling MAGA hats.
In March 2019, a grand jury indicted Smollett on 16 felony counts; he pleaded not guilty. Just 18 days later, in a stunning reversal, prosecutors dropped the charges, citing Smollett’s volunteer work and lack of a criminal background. The decision drew scrutiny and firm rebukes from multiple city officials, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D).
Meanwhile, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and her office were accused of mishandling the Smollett case. That June, a judge appointed special prosecutor Dan K. Webb to take over and determine whether to take action against Smollett. Webb decided to prosecute after “the 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,” per a statement.
Smollett, who has not acted since “Empire,” has recently been promoting his directorial feature debut, “B-Boy Blues,” an adaptation of James Earl Hardy’s 1994 book of the same name.