Lawyers in Jussie Smollett Case Tangle Over Motive as Testimony Ends

Categories: The New York Times

Mr. Smollett was questioned Tuesday by the prosecution about his interactions with his attackers shortly before the 2019 assault.

By Julia Jacobs and Mark Guarino

Dec. 7, 2021

Testimony in the trial over whether Jussie Smollett lied to police about being the victim of a hate crime ended on Tuesday after the actor was questioned closely by the prosecution about his interactions with his attackers shortly before the assault.

Deliberations in the case are expected to start Wednesday after closing arguments and six days of testimony in which two brothers said Mr. Smollett had staged the attack as a publicity stunt and the actor characterized them as rank liars.

On Tuesday, Mr. Smollett fended off accusations that he had planned the assault with the brothers, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, in the days and hours before the 2019 attack, describing their encounters as harmless.

In one meeting two days before the assault, he said, he and Abimbola Osundairo had simply been smoking marijuana while Mr. Smollett drove the brothers around Chicago before a scheduled workout session. He had hired Abimbola Osundairo to help him get “ripped” for a music video, he said.

“There was nothing strange or wrong going on,” Mr. Smollett said of his drive with the brothers.

But the prosecution took issue with his account, grilling him Tuesday on why their drive had continued to circle the area where the attack later occurred.

Similarly, Daniel K. Webb, the special prosecutor in the case, pressed Mr. Smollett about why he had continued to update Abimbola Osundairo about delays to his flight back to Chicago in the late-night hours of Jan. 28, 2019, shortly before the attack occurred.

The brothers have testified that Mr. Smollett was keeping them apprised of the delay so they could move back the time of their prearranged attack on him, which occurred at about 2 a.m.

Mr. Smollett testified that, actually, he was only keeping Abimbola Osundairo in the loop because they had plans to work out.

Mr. Webb noted, though, that there were no follow-up texts or emails canceling the workout, which was scheduled for the morning of Jan. 29, after the attack. He asked Mr. Smollet whether Abimbola Osundairo showed up for the appointment that morning.

“I’m saying I don’t know,” Mr. Smollett replied.

Mr. Smollett also testified that on the night of the attack, he had been posting updates about his flight to his Instagram followers and that Abimbola Osundairo was not the only person who messaged him directly about it, suggesting that the messages did not indicate that they had been coordinating the attack.

The back-and-forth often grew heated and Mr. Smollett grew flustered at times, leading Judge James Linn to urge him to answer the prosecutor’s questions directly.

In testimony earlier in the week, the brothers had described how Mr. Smollett outlined in detail the planned attack after expressing disappointment that the producers of the television show he starred in, “Empire,” had not responded more seriously to a death threat he had received in the mail.

An employee of the show disputed that contention Monday, reporting that the show had actually offered to get security to drive Mr. Smollett back and forth to his home from the studio, but the actor had refused.

Mr. Smollett, 39, has pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of disorderly conduct related to his report of the attack as a hate crime because of the racist and homophobic slurs uttered by his attackers. His lawyers have argued that the Osundairo brothers attacked him because they wanted to scare him into hiring them as his security detail. Mr. Smollett testified on Monday that Abimbola Osundairo persistently asked to act as his bodyguard, including after he received the threatening letter.

Prosecutors have contended that the brothers only beat Mr. Smollett up enough to bruise but not seriously injure him and placed a rope around his neck, fashioned like a noose, to make it seem like he had been the victim of a hate crime. Mr. Smollett on Tuesday swung back on that narrative, suggesting his injuries had indeed been serious enough that, to this day, he has a scar under his right eye that won’t go away.

Much of Mr. Webb’s questioning focused on events from Jan. 27, when the Osundairo brothers say Mr. Smollett took them through the “dry run,” driving them to an intersection near his apartment building and pointing out where he wanted the attack to occur.

Mr. Smollett testified that on that day, he had gone to pick up Abimbola Osundairo for a workout session, and when Olabinjo Osundairo inexplicably joined him at the pickup spot, Mr. Smollett said he used an upcoming television interview as an excuse to cancel the workout and drive the brothers back home.

Mr. Smollett had said Olabinjo Osundairo “creeped me out” in earlier testimony and said he did not like to work out with other people present.

But when Mr. Webb wanted to know why he had driven around his own neighborhood for 10 or 15 minutes before driving the brothers back home, Mr. Smollett replied, “I don’t know. It was three years ago.”

Mr. Webb pointed out that surveillance footage showed Mr. Smollett’s car circling the intersection where the attack occurred three times in the span of a few minutes.

The prosecution also touched on what the police say is an inconsistency in Mr. Smollett’s story: that in his first two interviews with the police, he described one of his attackers as white but later changed that to say he was pale-skinned. Mr. Smollett testified that he had assumed the attacker was white because of the racist slur he used and the fact that he said, “This is MAGA country,” referencing former President Donald J. Trump’s campaign slogan.

“Sir, do you think by claiming this person was white it would bring more credibility for a fake hate crime?” Mr. Webb asked.

“You’d have to ask someone who did a fake crime,” Mr. Smollett said.

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