Jussie Smolett trial begins with prosecutor alleging a planned hate crime and actor’s defense insisting case was ‘tremendous rush to judgment’ - Chicago Tribune

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After years of controversy and roller-coaster twists and turns, the trial of Jussie Smollett began Monday with prosecutors alleging the actor faked a hate crime that grabbed the nation’s attention and the defense calling that a “fantasy.”

Smollett’s alleged fakery, special prosecutor Dan Webb told jurors, was not just a crime — it was a despicable act that denigrated victims of actual hate crimes.

But it was Smollett who was in fact the real victim, his defense alleged in opening statements, the victim of a “tremendous rush to judgment” that ruined his career and reputation, defense attorney Nenye Uche said.

And the prosecutors’ star witnesses, brothers who told police they helped Smollett fake the attack, are opportunistic liars who hated Smollett “because of who he is as a person,” Uche said.

“They are not some foreign exchange students from Nigeria,” Uche said. “They are sophisticated, highly intelligent criminals.”

The case brings with it immense baggage, including what became a political crisis of sorts for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and the appointment of special prosecutor Webb to handle the case. But jurors will be tasked with determining a far narrower question: Did Smollett in fact orchestrate a phony hate crime on himself, then lie to police about being a victim?

In Webb’s opening statement, the answer was emphatically “yes.” Chicago police “reacted swiftly” to Smollett’s allegation that he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack, Webb said, putting the “full force” of the department on the case. At one point they had 26 officers and detectives working it, tallying over 3,000 man hours, according to Webb.

But in fact, he alleged, Smollett had convinced two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, to help him stage the fake attack.

“I want you to attack me, but when you hit me, I want you to kind of pull your punches a bit because I don’t want to get seriously hurt,” Smollett told them, according to Webb. Smollett also instructed them to put a rope around his neck to “make it look more like a lynching, like a hate crime,” Webb said.

The three men went on a “dry run” before the attack, part of which was captured on surveillance camera, Webb said. Smollett’s Mercedes can be seen circling the Streeterville intersection, showing the brothers the area where he wants the attack to occur, Webb said.

After the attack, Smollett even tampered with the rope, Webb said - bringing the knot closer to his neck before police arrived at his apartment.

“Apparently he wanted it to make it look more like a lynching,” Webb said. “... He wanted it to look like something more serious.”

Opening statements began Monday after about six hours of jury selection.

Those selected for the panel included a woman who says she’s watched “Empire” before and likes to drag race in her spare time, a man who emigrated from Iraq 12 years ago and works for a credit union, and a woman from west suburban Bartlett who’s a counselor at a behavioral hospital.

Another juror, a man from Lincoln Park who appears to be in his 30s, works in the health care information field. Also selected was a man originally from Canada who manages a store and man who appears to be in his 60s and works in sales.

Judge James Linn has said he may let evidence continue until 7 p.m. before recessing for the day.

In his first round of questioning, Linn had asked specifically whether jury candidates had heard about the case in the news, seen “Empire,” watched the celebrity gossip site TMZ, or belong to any civil rights or anti-police groups.

Actor Jussie Smollett arrives to the Leighton Criminal Court Building for jury selection in his trial on Nov. 29, 2021.

Actor Jussie Smollett arrives to the Leighton Criminal Court Building for jury selection in his trial on Nov. 29, 2021. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

About five people raised their hands indicating they’d never heard of the Smollett allegations. Two or three said they’d watched Empire and a few said they’d seen TMZ before.

So far only one prospective juror, a white woman, has said she might not be able to be fair, explaining that she’d done research on the case early on.

“When I found out it was a hate crime, my daughter is gay, so I did some research on that,” the woman said. “She works in the downtown area so I was very concerned for her safety and what was going on.”

When Linn pressed her on her ability to set that aside and render a fair verdict, the woman said she was still unsure. He then moved on to a different line of questioning.

The woman was later dismissed.

Smollett arrived at the courtroom shortly before 9:30 a.m., wearing a dark suit and a dark mask, with two supporters flanking him and holding both of his arms as he walked.

The trial is slated to last at least a week. Unlike during previous high-profile trials, the proceedings will not be livestreamed either online or to an “overflow” room.

By now the contours of the story are familiar: Smollett claimed he was walking home from a Subway restaurant one night in January 2019 when two men wearing ski masks attacked him, yelling racial and homophobic slurs and hanging a noose around his neck. One of his attackers appeared to be white, Smollett said. And in the midst of the assault, one assailant yelled “This is MAGA country,” a reference to then-President Donald Trump’s slogan.

His manager called the police, and officers responded to his apartment to find Smollett with the rope still around his neck. “I just wanted y’all to see it,” he told them.

The story grabbed international headlines — particularly after two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, told police that the attack had been faked. Smollett had persuaded them to stage the assault in hopes of catching the attention of his “Empire” bosses, the brothers said.

Smollett went from victim to suspect, and ultimately was charged with giving a false report to the police.

But in a stunning move, Cook County prosecutors quietly dropped those charges shortly after Smollett’s formal indictment, causing mass confusion and an outcry that ultimately led to a special prosecutor’s appointment. Webb, and his team brought a new indictment against Smollett in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

And on Monday, after COVID shutdowns have been eased and questions involving his legal representations have been resolved, the evidence against Smollett will finally get a public airing in court.

In the absence of objective smoking-gun evidence, the case will largely hinge on the credibility of the Osundairo brothers. They are the prosecution’s key witnesses, and are expected to tell jurors in great detail that Smollett recruited them and instructed them to orchestrate a phony attack.

By contrast, the defense is expected to argue that the brothers, working with at least one other person, attacked Smollett outright and then framed him to avoid being criminally charged themselves.

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

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