The twists, turns and oddities of the legal saga surrounding Jussie Smollett’s claim in 2019 that he was the target of a racist and homophobic attack in Chicago culminated in a week-long trial, which concluded with a jury convicting Smollett on five counts of disorderly conduct. Smollett was acquitted on a sixth count.
Initial charges brought in February 2019 that accused the former Empire actor of faking the assault were soon after tossed. But in February 2020, after a special prosecutor looked into the case, a new six-count indictment was filed.
What were the charges against Smollett?
The actor, 39, was charged under Illinois’ disorderly conduct statute, which encompasses a wide range of offences, from making prank 911 calls to placing harassing calls as a debt collector.
He faced six counts of disorderly conduct under a subsection of the law that prohibits false reports to police. Some states don’t categorise false police reports as disorderly conduct.
The charges were listed as class 4 felonies, which are among the least serious felonies in Illinois. But convictions can still carry potential prison time of up to three years.
Although Smollett was found guilty on Thursday of five of the six counts, his lack of criminal history and the fact no one was seriously hurt make actual time behind bars unlikely. It’s more likely that a judge would sentence him to probation and perhaps order him to perform community service.
“I’d be shocked if he spent one day in jail,” said Andrew Weisberg, a criminal lawyer and a former Cook County prosecutor.
What makes this case unique?
The Smollett case was certainly unique in how it involved a star actor and in its sensational claims and counterclaims – first by Smollett, that he was the subject of an attack and then by police that he had made it all up.
Smollett’s case stands out in that it got to trial at all, Weisberg said. In many cases, those accused of lying to police seek a plea deal or plead guilty without a deal.
Why six counts for the same incident?
Each count of disorderly conduct represents an instance during January 29, 2019, and then on February 14, 2019, in which Smollett allegedly lied to police.
Count 1 accused him of telling responding Chicago Police Officer Muhammed Baig at around 2.45am, about 45 minutes after the purported attack, that he was the victim of a hate crime. He said two attackers put a rope around his neck. Count 2 referred to Smollett telling the same officer he was a victim of a battery, describing attackers beating and pouring bleach on him.
Counts 3 and 4 stemmed from Smollett making the same claims but to a different officer, Kimberly Murray, later that morning, at just before 6am.
Count 5 accused Smollett of again telling Murray at around 7.15pm that he was the victim of a battery. Count 6 referred to Smollett reporting on February 14, 2019, to detective Robert Graves that he’d been a victim of an aggravated battery.
Below is a timeline of how events unfolded in 2019:
January 22, 2019: the letter
About a week before he was attacked, Jussie Smollett, 36, reported to police that he received an envelope addressed to him, with the words "MAGA" (aka, Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan) written in red ink on the return address.
Inside was a threat in cut out letters: "You will die black ****". There was white powder in the envelope, which was found later to be Tylenol.
January 29, 2019: the attack
A week after receiving the letter, Smollett reports to police that he was attacked at 2am while at the fast food store Subway in New York, near his apartment. He says the two men yelled homophobic and racist slurs at him, shouting "This is MAGA country", while also wrapping a noose around his neck.
Many people tweeted in support of Smollett after the incident, including US Vice President Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate at the time, and politician Cory Booker:
While John Legend also shared sympathy for Smollett after the attack, as did Ellen, and many, many others:
January 30, 2019: the suspects
Chicago Police release images of two people in the area at the time of the attack that they would like to question (after dozens of police reviewed hundreds of hours of footage). The images, however, are grainy and the people are not identifiable.
January 31, 2019: Smollett's first statement
Then US president Donald Trump tells reporters of the attack: "It doesn't get any worse, as far as I'm concerned".
Smollett releases a statement to Essence, saying: "My body is strong but my soul is stronger. More importantly, I want to say thank you. The outpouring of love and support from my village has meant more than I will ever be able to truly put into words... These types of cowardly attacks are happening to my sisters, brothers and non-gender conforming siblings daily. I am not and should not be looked upon as an isolated incident... Soon I will address all details of this horrific incident, but I need a moment to process."
His family released a statement, with his sister, Jurnee, posting this message on Instagram: "We want to be clear, this was a racial and homophobic hate crime. Jussie has told the police everything from the very beginning. His story has never changed, and we are hopeful they will find these men and bring them to justice.
"These are inhumane acts of domestic terrorism and they should be treated as such."
February 2, 2019: his public appearance
Public support for Smollett continued – on February 1 Ellen Page gives an impassioned speech on Late Night With Stephen Colbert stating that it was "absurd" that the media was debating whether or not "what happened to Jussie Smollett is a hate crime". Then, on February 2, Smollett (who is also a singer), appears on stage at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, saying:
"The most important thing I have to say is thank you so much and that I'm OK. I'm not fully healed yet, but I'm going to. And I'm gonna stand strong with y'all… l will always stand for love. I will never stand for anything other than that. Regardless of what anyone else says, I will only stand for love. And I hope that you all will stand with me. So now… let's do it." Adding, "There has been a lot of stuff said about me that's absolutely not true... I'm sure my lawyer's sitting up there like 'No, Jussie, no! No! Shut ... up and sing.'
"Above all, I fought the **** back."
February 12, 2019: not handing over all evidence
Chicago Police say that Smollett turned over some of the phone records they requested, but not all of them. Smollett says his music manager was on the phone with him during the attack and can corroborate his story.
February 13, 2019: suspects arrested at airport
Two potential suspects are arrested in the case – Nigerian brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo were picked up at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The police didn't initially release their names, but did confirm that one of the brothers had worked on Empire, the show Smollett still worked on at the time of the attack (although his employment is now under question, according to reports).
February 14, 2019: more media coverage
Smollett gives an interview on Good Morning America, directly saying that lying about the attack would be a terrible act: "You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this," he said.
On this day, Chicago Police also announced that the two brothers were brought in for questioning at the airport after arriving back from Nigeria.
Empire producers dismiss reports that Smollett's character was being written off the show (people were making the suggestion on social media that Smollett was trying to secure his job, and boost his career by faking the attack).
February 15, 2019: suspects released, absolved
The police upgrade the Osundairo brothers from being persons of interest, to suspects. Later that day, they release the brothers, however, and say they are no longer suspects.
"Due to new evidence as a result of today's interrogations, the individuals questioned by police in the Empire case have now been released without charging and detectives have additional investigative work to complete," the police representative tweeted.
February 16, 2019: sources begin to leak information
A law enforcement source tells media that the police are now investigating whether Smollett paid the brothers to stage the attack, and that police had found where the rope used in the attack was bought.
That night, Smollett releases a statement insisting the attack happened as he said it had. "Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with. He has been further victimised by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack. Nothing is further from the truth."
February 19, 2019: Kim Foxx recuses herself
Sources tell Deadline that Empire cuts Smollett's yet-to-be-filmed scenes from the script. Sources then tell CBS Chicago that the Osundairo brothers told police that Smollett sent himself the racist letter, and staged the attack when the letter didn't create the reaction he had expected.
Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx recuses herself from the case "out of an abundance of caution" due to her "familiarity with potential witnesses in the case".
Late-night TV host Trevor Noah had this to say about the incident on his show that night:
February 20, 2019: Smollett charged by police
Smollett is charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report about the attack. The indictment is serious, and carries a felony charge.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says that detectives are currently presenting evidence of the charge against Smollett to a grand jury.
Former Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez critiques Foxx for recusing herself from the case: “Maybe I should have just recused myself from the difficult cases that came across my desk when I was state's attorney. I was under the impression that when the voters elected me and I took my oath of office it meant I had to do my job."
February 21, 2019: Smollett in custody
Chicago Police take Smollett into custody to face a class four felony charge (which can mean up to three years in prison). He later appeared in court where his bail was set at $100,000. He posted bond and was asked to surrender his passport before being released from Cook County Jail. He made no statement to the large media contingent waiting outside.
February 21, 2019: statement from Chicago police chief
At a news conference after Smollett's arrest, Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson condemned the actor's alleged actions, saying: "This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn't earn and certainly didn't deserve."
He said: "Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career. This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with this salary. He concocted a story about being attacked. We gave him the benefit of the doubt."
This photo gallery shows Smollett leaving Cook County Jail after posting bail.
February 22, 2019: suspended from 'Empire'
Smollett's character will be written out of the final two episodes of Empire, its showrunners have announced.
In a statement, they said the past few weeks have been "incredibly emotional", and that the allegations that Smollett had faked the attack were "disturbing".
The actor was spotted at the studio where the show is filmed the previous afternoon, according to reports from US media. Sources told NBC and CNN that the actor had apologised to the cast for any embarrassment caused, but also maintained his innocence.
The Fox production team said in their statement: "The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us. Jussie has been an important member of our Empire family for the past five years and we care about him deeply.
"While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out.
"We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show, and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of Jamal from the final two episodes of the season."
Whether or not he'll be asked to return for future seasons remains to be seen.
February 24, 2019: Terrence Howard supports Smollett
Smollett's Empire co-star and on-screen dad Terrence Howard has come out in support of the disgraced actor. In an Instagram video, Howard posted clips of good times the pair have shared together. It shows Smollett playing with Howard's son on-board a private plane. "Aw, such a sweet baby," Smollett says, with a smile to the camera. Howard captioned the image: "All your lil homies got you... We love the hell outta you."
It was a controversial post, garnering a slew of angry comments. Howard responded by commenting:
"Sorry you feel that way but that’s the only Jussie I know. The Jussie I know could never even conceive of something so unconscious and ugly. His innocence or judgment is not for any of us to decide. Stay in your lane and my lane is empathy and love and compassion for someone I’ve called my son for five years. It’s God’s job to judge and it’s ours to love and hope, especially for those that we claim to have loved.”
Smollett still maintains his innocence.
February 25, 2019: Chicago police say more to come
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson appeared on Good Morning America to dispute media reports that the thousands of dollars Smollett paid to the Osundairo brothers was for personal training. Prosecutors say that Smollett had bought drugs from the brothers in the past, and called them an hour before the attack, and an hour afterwards, and also spoke to them when they were in Nigeria during the two weeks after the attacks.
“There’s a lot more evidence that hasn’t been presented yet that does not support his innocence ... physical, video and testimony,” Johnson told host Robin Roberts.
February 26, 2019: Smollett granted permission to travel to California
It was reported on this day that Smollett had been granted permission to leave Illinois and travel to California to meet his legal team. His lawyer, Mark Geragos, once represented Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder, and will head up his trial team.
Smollett maintains his innocence. Homophobic tweets by the Osundario brothers, written in 2013, have also surfaced.
March 8, 2019: 16 indictments
A grand jury in Chicago indicted Smollett on 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was attacked by two men in Chicago who shouted racial and homophobic slurs. The Cook County grand jury indictment filed the previous day charges him with falsely reporting an offence.
The 16-county grand jury indictment includes eight counts for what he told a police officer and eight more for what he told a detective.
In the indictment filed, the Cook County grand jury makes it clear that Smollett added details to his account of what happened on January 29 when he talked to the detective.
It says he gave a basic version to the police officer that included allegations that he was beaten by two masked men who shouted racial and homophobic slurs at him. The indictment says that when he talked to the detective, Smollett said he could see from the skin around one of the attacker's eyes through the mask that he was white. He also said that the attackers looped a rope around his neck.
March 12, 2019: cameras will be allowed in the courtroom
Smollett kept a low profile after his arrest, but appeared in court on March 12 at a hearing he didn't have to attend (sources are widely reported to have said that he wants to play an active role in his defence).
During the hearing, it was agreed by both parties that cameras will be allowed to be present in court. One of his lawyers, Tina Glandian, says the actor wants cameras in court so that the public "can see the evidence and the lack thereof." She said that a lot of the information that has been leaked is "demonstrably false".
The lawyer for the Osundario brothers, however, said she believed her "clients were betrayed" by Smollett, telling CNN, "we've seen a lot of stories in the news where celebrities think they might be above the law. It's just not the case."
March 14, 2019: No guilty plea
In the next hearing, Smollett pleads not guilty, and the court sets his next appearance for April 17, but then...
March 26, 2019: All criminal charges dropped
Prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett after the Empire actor – accused of falsely reporting that he was the victim of a hate crime attack – agreed to do volunteer service and let the city keep his $10,000 bail.
Authorities gave no detailed explanation as to why they abandoned the case, infuriating Chicago's mayor and police chief, only five weeks after filing the charges and threatening to pursue the actor for the cost of a month-long investigation.
Prosecutors said they still believed Smollett concocted the assault but the TV star insisted he told the truth all along. Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the deal "a whitewash of justice" and lashed out at Smollett for dragging the city's reputation "through the mud" in a quest to advance his career.
"Is there no decency in this man?" Emanuel asked.
The actor's lawyers said his record was "wiped clean" of the 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was assaulted by two men.
Smollett insisted that he had "been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one".
"I would not be my mother's son if I was capable of one drop of what I was being accused of," he said after a court hearing.
Smollett thanked the state of Illinois "for attempting to do what's right".
A spokeswoman for the Cook County prosecutors' office said the dismissal came "after reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case". Tandra Simonton called it "a just disposition and appropriate resolution" but said it was not an exoneration.
When dropping cases, prosecutors will sometimes insist the defendant accept at least some of the responsibility. But outside court, neither Smollett nor his legal team appeared to concede anything about his original report in January.
Wednesday, April 24, 2019: 'Empire' cast writes letter of support for Smollett
Empire stars Taraji P Henson and Terrance Howard expressed their support for Smollett in a letter penned to Fox, asking that he returns for the sixth season of the show. The pair, plus the rest of the series' top cast, wrote the letter on April 19, directed at Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier, Disney TV Studios and ABC Entertainment chair Dana Walden, Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn, the show's co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, and other executive producers on the series, reports Variety.
"Together, as a united front, we stand with Jussie Smollett and ask that our co-star, brother and friend be brought back for our sixth season of Empire," read the letter, which was obtained by Deadline.
April 30, 2019: Jussie Smollett will not return to 'Empire' for next season
Fox Entertainment said on April 30 that Jussie Smollett will not return to Empire's next season.
"By mutual agreement, the studio has negotiated an extension to Jussie Smollett's option for season six, but at this time there are no plans for the character of Jamal to return to Empire," the studio said, giving no reasoning for the decision.
Fox announced earlier that the drama about a hip-hop record label and the fiery family behind it had been renewed for a sixth season.
A Smollett representative released a statement to several media outlets suggesting a hope that he may eventually return.
"We've been told that Jussie will not be on Empire' in the beginning of the season but he appreciates they have extended his contract to keep Jamal's future open," the statement said. "Most importantly he is grateful to Fox and Empire leadership, cast, crew and fans for their unwavering support."
– Additional reporting by AP and AFP. This article was first published on April 25, 2019