Jussie Smollett Found Guilty of Reporting a Fake Hate Crime

Categories: The New York Times

Mr. Smollett was convicted of filing a false police report in 2019 claiming he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack. The jury deliberated for more than nine hours.

By Julia Jacobs and Mark Guarino

Dec. 9, 2021

A jury in Chicago found the actor Jussie Smollett guilty on Thursday of falsely reporting to the 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 Mr. Smollett had asked them to mildly injure him as part of a publicity stunt.

Mr. 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 Mr. Smollett only made matters worse by continuing to stand by his account at trial.

“This jury worked so hard,” Mr. 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 Jan. 29, 2019, when Mr. Smollett — known then for his role in the Fox music-industry drama “Empire” — told the police he had been the victim of a hate crime near his apartment building in Chicago. Mr. Smollett said one of his attackers had even yelled, “This is MAGA country.”

His account captured the attention of a politically polarized nation concerned with rising hate crime reports and the persistent threat of racism. But public support for Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Smollett’s agreement to forfeit his $10,000 bond and perform community service.

The case was later revived by Mr. Webb, who reviewed that decision and ultimately announced that a grand jury had charged Mr. Smollett with six counts of felony disorderly conduct. Mr. Smollett was convicted on five counts on Thursday, relating to conversations he had with the 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 defense team said Mr. 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 Mr. 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. The prosecutors faulted Mr. Smollett for not cooperating adequately with the investigation by balking at turning over evidence like his cellphone.

“Mr. Smollett didn’t want the crime solved,” Mr. Webb said during his closing argument on Wednesday. “He wanted to report it as a hate crime; he wanted media exposure; but he didn’t want the brothers apprehended.”

Mr. Webb told the jury that Mr. 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 defense came forward with a sharply different account of Mr. Smollett’s attitudes and behaviors. 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 Mr. Smollett to and from the set. They said the Osundairo brothers were liars who had attacked Mr. Smollett to scare him into hiring them as bodyguards, and who concocted a story to avoid prosecution themselves.

Mr. Smollett’s lawyer Mr. 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,” Mr. Uche said. What is more, he said, Mr. Smollett had a music video shoot coming up and could not afford his face getting bruised.

Mr. Smollett, 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 Mr. 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, 28, a fitness aficionado who had appeared on “Empire” in minor roles, testified that the planning began when Mr. 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,” Mr. Osundairo said of their meeting. “I looked puzzled, and then he explained he wanted me to fake beat him up.”

Mr. Osundairo said he agreed to the plan because he felt “indebted” to Mr. Smollett for getting him a role as a stand-in on “Empire.” Olabinjo Osundairo, 30, who had also appeared on “Empire” in minor roles, said he participated to “curry favor” with Mr. Smollett.

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