CHICAGO (CBS) — Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was convicted on five counts Thursday evening on charges he orchestrated a fake hate crime against himself nearly three years ago, while jurors acquitted him of one other count.
A jury of six men and six women deliberated more than nine hours over two days before finding Smollett guilty of five of six counts of disorderly conduct, accusing the actor of staging a fake racist and homophobic attack against himself in January 2019, and then lying to police about it, in a bid for publicity. Jurors found him not guilty of the sixth count of disorderly conduct.
The disorderly conduct charges are class 4 felonies, carrying a sentence of up to three years in prison.
CBS 2 Legal Analyst Irv Miller has said it’s unlikely Smollett would be sentenced to significant time in prison, if any, despite a previous DUI arrest during which he gave false information to police by giving his brother’s name when he was asked to identify himself.
“He’s not a first offender. He had a case a few years ago, where he was found guilty of giving false information to the police, and that’s basically what he did in this case. The law in Illinois says you should get probation on a class 4 felony, which is what he’s charged with, but because he does he have this background that may tip the scales, a little bit towards giving him a little jail time,” Miller said.
Smollett, who is Black and gay, had told police he was attacked as he was walking home on Lower North Water Street around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, 2019. He claimed two masked men – one of them also wearing a red hat – shouted racist and homophobic slurs as they beat him, put a noose around his neck, and poured a chemical on him. Police and prosecutors have said Smollett orchestrated it himself, paying two brothers – Abel and Ola Osundairo – $3,500 to help stage the attack.
Smollett said his attackers doused him in bleach and draped a rope resembling a noose around his neck. Abel and Ola Osundairo were initially detained – suspected of carrying out the attack on Smollett.
But in a turn of events, Smollett went from victim to suspect – charged with six counts of felony disorderly conduct for staging the attack and lying to police.
The brothers told investigators that Smollett gave them the money to buy the ski masks, rope, and red hats to appear like supporters of President Donald Trump.
Police said Smollett orchestrated the plan because of an anonymous hate-filled letter sent to the studio where “Empire” was filmed – and said Smollett did not think the threat was taken seriously.
Jurors heard from 14 witnesses over six days of testimony during Smollett’s trial, with Smollett taking the stand in his own defense, repeatedly asserting that there was no hoax, and that the attack was real.
“To answer all your questions about the hoax, I am going to deny. There was no hoax,” Smollett told special prosecutor Dan Webb during cross-examination.
Smollett told jurors he paid the Osundairo brothers $3,500 to help him with training and nutrition advice, not to stage a fake hate crime against himself.
He also testified the brothers told him after the attack that they were willing to publicly say they were not part of any hoax if he paid them $2 million.
Earlier at trial, Abel Osundairo denied asking Smollett for $1 million each for him and his brother not to testify against Smollett.
The Osundairo brothers were the prosecution’s key witnesses during the trial, with both claiming that Smollett asked and paid them to stage the attack. They said Smollett wanted to use security video of the incident for publicity, but the actual attack was not caught on camera.
When asked about the alleged fake attack, Abel said, “He explained that he wanted me to fake beat him up.”
When prosecutors asked Osundairo why he would agree to go through with the plan, Abel said: “I agreed to do it most importantly because I felt indebted to Jussie. He also got me a stand in role on ‘Empire,’ and I believed he could further my acting career.”
During closing arguments, Webb argued that the prosecution presented a clear-cut case that Smollett orchestrated a hoax.
“We have proven this by overwhelming evidence,” he said.
Webb said it was “just plain wrong” for a Black gay man like Smollett to stage a phony hate crime, using symbols of racism like a noose and use of the N-word.
“To outright denigrate something as serious, as heinous, as a real hate crime — to denigrate it and then make sure it involved words and symbols that have such horrible historical significance in the our country,” Webb said.
But Smollett’s defense attorney asserted the prosecution’s case is based on the testimony of liars, calling the Osundairo brothers “the worst type of criminals.”
“The entire prosecution case including the foundation of their case is built like a house of cards, and we all know what happens to a house of cards when you apply a little pressure: it crumbles,” defense attorney Nenye Uche said.
Uche said the Osundairo brothers accusing Smollett of staging a hoax was simply a “blame the victim scam.”
“It’s better than the Nigerian prince scam,” Uche said. “Don’t fall for it.”
Nemo me impune lacessit