Hate crime or publicity stunt? Chicago jury to hear case in Jussie Smollett trial

Prosecutor claims actor reported 'fake hate crime'

Jussie Smollett arrives with family and lawyers for the first day of his trial in Chicago for reportedly staging an attack on himself. EPA
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On a frigid Chicago night in January 2019, actor Jussie Smollett, a star on the TV drama Empire, reported that he was the victim of a hate-motivated street attack, but police later accused him of staging the whole affair as a publicity stunt.

The case went to trial on Monday in Cook County Circuit Court, with a jury selected by late afternoon to hear evidence for six felony counts of disorderly conduct against Smollett who stands accused of making false reports to the police.

Smollett, 39, has denied that he faked the attack, pleading not guilty in February 2020.

The openly gay black actor told police he had been accosted on a darkened street by two masked strangers.

Assailants threw a noose around his neck, Smollett said, and poured chemicals on him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs and expressions of support for former president Donald Trump.

A month later, police arrested him, accusing him of paying two brothers $3,500 to stage the attack in a hoax aimed at gaining public sympathy and raising his show business profile.

Smollett's acting career has faded since the incident. He lost his role as a singer-songwriter in the final season of Empire, a Fox television hip-hop drama that ended a five-year run in 2020.

His case took an unexpected turn in the spring of 2019 when the Cook County state attorney's office dropped a 16-count indictment against him in exchange for Smollett forfeiting his $10,000 bond without admitting wrongdoing.

The dismissal drew criticism from the mayor of Chicago at the time Rahm Emanuel and the city's police superintendent, who called the reversal a miscarriage of justice, leading a Cook County judge to appoint Dan Webb, a former US attorney, to review the case.

After a five-month investigation, Mr Webb overruled the state attorney's office and concluded that prosecution of Smollett was warranted, questioning the judgment of prosecutors in dropping the original case.

“When he reported the fake hate crime, that was a real crime,” Mr Webb said.

The current case against Smollett has been slowed by legal challenges and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Key trial evidence is expected from the brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who prosecutors have said were paid by Smollett to participate in the phoney attack. Smollett is not required to speak in his own defence.

The class-four felony for disorderly conduct and lying to police carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said it is likely that if Smollett is convicted, he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.

Updated: November 30, 2021, 12:27 AM