CHICAGO (AP) — Jussie Smollett took the witness stand Monday at his trial where he is facing charges accusing him of staging a racist, anti-gay attack on himself and lying to Chicago police about it.
The former actor from the TV show “Empire” was testifying Monday as the trial entered its second week and neared a finish. Two brothers testified last week that Smollett, who is gay and Black, orchestrated the hoax to get publicity. They said he paid them to fake the January 2019 attack in downtown Chicago.
Smollett’s attorneys argued the attack was real and that the brothers made up the story about a hoax then asked Smollett for $1 million each to not testify against him at trial.
The charges carry a possible sentence of three years in prison, though legal experts say the 39-year-old Smollett is more likely to get probation and be ordered to perform community service.
Jussie Smollett has maintained he was attacked in downtown Chicago in January 2019 by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, a report that ignited political and ideological divisions around the country. But special prosecutor Dan Webb said the actor recruited two brothers to help him carry out the fake attack, then reported it to Chicago police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 staff hours on the investigation.
“When he reported the fake hate crime that was a real crime,” said Webb, who was named as special prosecutor after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office dropped the original charges filed against Smollett. A new indictment was returned in 2020.
Smollett’s career could take center stage. Prosecutors could make the same point that then-Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson made when he announced Smollett’s arrest in 2019: that Smollett thought the attack would win him more fame and a pay raise.
"Mr. Smollett is the one that orchestrated this crime," police say. "He has to be accountable for what he did."
Smollett maintains his innocence. pic.twitter.com/TuRvyKbBqp
— Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) February 21, 2019
Earlier Monday, security guard Anthony Moore said that around the time of the alleged assault, he saw a person on the ground at the end of the block and two men running, one of whom was white. Moore said he told police what he saw, but when he was later questioned by the special prosecutor he felt pressured to change his story. Moore testified that he signed a statement that said the person was “possibly” a Black man, but that he felt “pressure and threatened to put something out there that I didn’t see.”
Under cross-examination, Moore said he only saw the man for one to two seconds. He also said he thought the men were fooling around, and that the two men were laughing as they ran by him.
Prosecutors say Smollett staged the attack because he was unhappy with the “Empire” studio’s response to hate mail he received. The letter including a drawing of a stick figure hanging by a noose, with a gun pointed at it, and the word “MAGA” — an apparent reference to then-President Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The Osundairo brothers testified that Smollett told them to yell “this is MAGA country” during the fake assault.
Brett Mahoney, who produced “Empire” in Chicago, testified that Smollett called him after the hate mail was sent to the set.
“We were obviously all very upset about the letter,” Mahoney said, adding that law enforcement was contacted and the letter turned over to authorities. He said Smollett agreed to added on-set security, but didn’t want anyone following him home because he felt it was too intrusive.
Smollett, 39, is charged with six counts of felony disorderly conduct for making what prosecutors say was a false police report about the alleged attack — one count for each time he gave a report — to three different officers. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said if Smollett is convicted he likely would be placed on probation and ordered to perform community service.