The actor, who is accused of asking two brothers to mildly attack him, and then reporting it as a hate crime, took the stand at his criminal trial on charges related to the 2019 assault.
By Julia Jacobs and Mark Guarino
Dec. 6, 2021
Jussie Smollett took the stand on Monday in an effort to convince a Chicago jury that he did not orchestrate a hate crime against himself but, instead, was the victim of both a real attack and the police’s rush to judgment in charging him.
Mr. Smollett, 39, submitted himself to questioning in his own trial to rebut the testimony of two key witnesses, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, brothers who told the court last week that Mr. Smollett had instructed them in detail on how to attack him, including shouting racist and homophobic slurs at him.
The Osundairo brothers said that Mr. Smollett took them through a “dry run” of the attack on the day before it was supposed to occur in January 2019 and asked one of them to bruise him without inflicting real injuries while the other put a rope around his neck and poured bleach on him.
But Mr. Smollet sought to undercut the prosecution’s evidence with his own explanations, saying that the $3,500 check he had made out to Abimbola Osundairo had been for help getting him to look “ripped” for an upcoming music video (not as payment for the attack, as prosecutors have argued), and that he had refused to hand his cellphone over to investigators to protect his own privacy (not to prevent them from discovering suspicious texts).
“Have you ever planned a hoax?” Mr. Smollett’s lawyer, Nenye Uche, asked the actor.
“Never in my life,” Mr. Smollett replied.
Throughout his five hours of testimony, Mr. Smollett could be self-deprecating and was often animated, at one point acting out in the courtroom how one of his attackers approached him on the frigid night in Chicago, nearly three years ago.
Prosecutors have argued that Mr. Smollett staged the attack because he was upset that the show on which he starred, the Fox hip-hop drama “Empire,” did not take seriously a threatening letter he had received at the studio.
Mr. Smollett rebutted that explanation, testifying that he had refused the studio’s offer of additional security — he would have been driven each day from his home to the set.
“I’m a grown man,” Mr. Smollett said. “I don’t need to be driven around like Miss Daisy.”
Mr. Smollett, whose defense team has argued that the brothers attacked him in a bid to scare him into hiring them as his security, said that Abimbola Osundairo persistently suggested he act as his bodyguard. At times, he said, Mr. Osundairo’s demeanor reminded him of that of a Secret Service agent. Earlier on Monday, Brett Mahoney, the “Empire” showrunner, testified that the show had taken the threatening letter “very seriously,” and had sought to provide Mr. Smollett with additional security.
Mr. Smollett also gave a different version of what happened on Jan. 25, 2019, just days before the attack, when the prosecution says Mr. Smollett asked Abimbola Osundairo in a text message for help “on the low.” The actor said he was seeking to meet — not to plan his own assault — to arrange to get an herbal steroid from Nigeria that helps people lose body fat and is illegal in the United States.
Daniel K. Webb, the special prosecutor on the case, questioned Mr. Smollett extensively on why, after he made the initial police report, he declined to give his cellphone, medical records and a cheek swab to the police. Mr. Smollett repeatedly said that he did so to maintain his privacy.
“Did you think it might help the police if you gave your cellphone to them to help find the perpetrator?” Mr. Webb asked.
“I cared more about my privacy, and that’s the truth,” Mr. Smollett said.
Mr. Webb also asked why, when Mr. Smollett gave the police a limited batch of his phone records, he excluded a call with Abimbola Osundairo that took place one hour and 10 minutes before the attack. Mr. Smollett said a detective had asked only for call records from an hour before and an hour after the attack. Mr. Webb’s questioning of Mr. Smollett will continue on Tuesday.
Mr. Smollett sought early in his testimony to indicate just how happy he had been with his role on “Empire,” and, when asked directly, said he had no problem with Fox. Instead Mr. Smollett, who is gay, testified that it had been a blessing to win the role of Jamal Lyon, a gay singer-songwriter who so closely mirrored his identity, and to eventually earn $100,000 per episode.
“I had never seen a gay man — let alone a gay Black man — portrayed ever,” Mr. Smollett said. “I really, really wanted to do it.”
The defense also called Anthony Moore, a security guard who worked at Mr. Smollett’s apartment building. Mr. Moore testified that he told the police that he saw the attackers flee the scene that night and identified one of them as a white male in a ski mask. (He said he could tell he was white because he shined a flashlight in his face.) Mr. Smollett had initially told police that one of his attackers was white, and then later said he was pale-skinned, something the police had pointed out as an inconsistency in his story.
“With the things that were being said, I made the assumption they were white,” Mr. Smollett testified on Monday.
As he began his testimony, Mr. Smollett depicted himself to the jury, in a lengthy biographical summary of his career, as someone who grew up in a middle-class family of performers, received some work as a child actor, became deeply involved in charity organizations and returned to acting, landing the major role on “Empire.”
In January 2019, when the attack was reported, public sympathy for Mr. Smollett was immediate and widespread. But as the police investigation into the report stalled, suspicion grew about Mr. Smollett’s account, though the actor stood by it.
“It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone Black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me much more,” Mr. Smollett told ABC’s Robin Roberts in February of that year. “A lot more.”
Days after that television interview, Mr. Smollett was arrested on charges that he staged the assault.
The Osundairo brothers told the police that Mr. Smollett had orchestrated the whole thing, giving them a $100 bill to buy supplies for the attack, including ski masks, a rope and a red hat meant to indicate that the attackers were supporters of President Donald J. Trump.
“He wanted me to tussle and throw him to the ground and give him a bruise while my brother Ola would pour bleach on him and put a rope around him, and then we would run away,” Abimbola Osundairo testified.
Prosecutors have cited as evidence Instagram messages from Mr. Smollett to Abimbola Osundairo on the night of the attack, updating the brothers on his flight delay.
Mr. Smollett has maintained his innocence, pleading not guilty to six counts of disorderly conduct related to filing a false police report and insisting that the attack had happened as he initially described.
“They won’t let this go,” Mr. Smollett said in an Instagram interview last year. “There is an example being made, and the sad part is that there’s an example being made of someone that did not do what they’re being accused of.”