Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, facing six felony disorderly conduct charges for allegedly filing a false police report about being the victim of a hate crime, took the stand in a Chicago courtroom Monday and Tuesday to testify in his own defense. He reiterated his stance that there “was no hoax.”
In January 2019, Smollett told police he had been attacked late at night by two people in the city’s Streeterville neighborhood. Smollett, who is Black and gay, said they poured an unknown chemical substance on him, hurled slurs and yelled, “This is MAGA country,” referring to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
After the news spread, Smollett received widespread support from numerous advocacy organizations and fellow celebrities. But within days, doubts over whether Smollett was telling the truth began to spread on social media. The actor told Robin Roberts on “Good Morning America” that the lack of belief angered him.
In mid-February, police questioned brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who were identified as Smollett’s alleged assailants, and announced soon afterward that the interviews had “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.” Smollett was named a suspect and arrested later that same month, charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report about the attack.
After several stops and starts (including an indictment, dropped charges and then another indictment), Smollett’s trial began last week at Chicago’s Leighton Criminal Courthouse. Special prosecutor Dan K. Webb made the argument that Smollett “devised this fake crime” because he was unhappy with how the studio had handled a threatening letter he received at work, according to the Associated Press.
Smollett pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. While testifying, he detailed growing up in a close-knit family, members of which accompanied him to the courthouse Monday. The AP reported Smollett saying he “came to terms with my sexuality” early in his 20s, when he volunteered at an organization that worked to fight AIDS in Black communities. On “Empire,” he played musician Jamal Lyon, a gay character; Smollett said he went out for the role because he hadn’t previously encountered such a portrayal of a Black man on television.
The actor said that by the fifth season of “Empire,” which was on a midseason break at the time of the incident in Chicago, he received $100,000 per episode. Prosecutors previously argued that Smollett staged the attack because he was unhappy with his salary on the show. According to the AP, he testified that he hated the attention he received after news of the incident broke. He said a friend had been the one to call the police when he returned home that night, and that he wouldn’t have called the authorities himself.
“I am a Black man in America. I do not trust the police,” he said. “I am also a well-known figure at that time, and I am an openly gay man.”
Both Osundairos had worked on “Empire.” According to the AP, Smollett testified that he learned of Abimbola Osundairo’s job on the show after meeting him at a club in 2017. The actor said they did drugs together and “made out” at a bathhouse, which eventually led to a sexual relationship. (Osundairo denied that characterization of his relationship with Smollett last week, when the defense argued Osundairo was using the “sexual tension” to advance his own career.)
Smollett also testified that he distrusted Olabinjo Osundairo, who “kind of freaked me out.”
The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Abimbola Osundairo testified last week that he was a friend, physical trainer and occasional drug supplier to Smollett, and that they were close enough for Osundairo to consider the actor his brother. In January 2019, Osundairo said, Smollett asked the brothers to “fake beat him up” and yell slurs at him.
“I agreed to do it, because more importantly, I felt indebted to Jussie,” Osundairo said, according to the Sun-Times. He added, “I also believed he could help further my acting career.”
Osundairo referred to a text message he received from Smollett asking to speak “on the low,” which Osundairo said is when they planned the attack. According to the AP, Smollett testified that the conversation had instead been about an herbal steroid Osundairo offered to bring the actor back from Nigeria, one that was supposedly illegal in the United States.
Prosecutors said earlier in the trial that Smollett told the Osundairos what to say and gave them a $100 bill so they could buy ski masks, red baseball caps similar to the MAGA kind and “a rope to make it look like a hate crime.” A lead investigator added that Smollett had taken them on a “dry run” the day before the incident.
Smollett gave the Osundairos a check for $3,500, which Abimbola Osundairo considered to be payment for both the attack and a food-and-exercise plan he had given the actor, per the Sun-Times. The AP reported that at another point in the trial, defense attorney Nenye Uche said the check covered training that Osundairo had provided Smollett, and that they attacked him because of negative feelings toward him.
Smollett repeated while testifying that the check had just been for the wellness advice.
The second day of Smollett’s testimony took on a more heated tone as he responded to the cross-examination with brief “exasperated” remarks, according to reporters at the courthouse. Webb pushed Smollett Tuesday on details regarding his communication with Osundairo before the incident, per ABC Chicago, including text messages Smollett sent Osundairo the night before the attack, updating the trainer on his delayed flight from New York back to Chicago. Smollett said he texted Osundairo because they had planned to work out when Smollett returned.
ABC Chicago reported that Smollett confirmed he told police he believed his attackers to be White, but referred to them as “pale” later on. He also acknowledged that he expressed to Roberts during the “Good Morning America” interview that if he had “described the attacker as a Muslim or Black, I wouldn’t have so many people questioning me about it.”
CBS Chicago reported that the defense also argued that the Osundairos were motivated by homophobia. Prosecutors pushed back against this characterization by showing the jury photos of Olabinjo Osundairo participating in a Pride celebration. Olabinjo Osundairo, who also testified, said Smollett had initially wanted the brothers to splash gasoline on him, according to CBS Chicago. But Osundairo “didn’t think it was safe” and decided to use bleach instead.
Uche was barred from questioning either Osundairo because they had spoken with him early on about possibly representing them in the case, according to the Chicago Tribune. Other members of the defense team accused the brothers of asking Smollett for money not to testify against him, claims the siblings denied.
Toward the end of the first week in Smollett’s trial, the defense filed a motion for a mistrial. Defense attorney Tamara Walker accused Judge James Linn of misconduct, the AP stated, saying he “did physically lunge at me.” Linn denied the allegation, as well as the mistrial motion.