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 to testify in his own defense.
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. The prosecutor said 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.
Both Osundairos had worked on the set of “Empire.” The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Abimbola Osundairo testified that he was also 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.”
Smollett gave the Osundairos a check for $3,500, which 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 Osundairo had provided Smollett, and that they attacked him because of negative feelings toward him.
CBS Chicago reported that the defense also argued that the Osundairos, who both testified, 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 also testified and 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 cross-examined Abimbola Osundairo, claiming he and Smollett had a romantic relationship prior to the incident and that Osundairo was using the “sexual tension” to advance his own career. They also 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 motioned 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.