Jussie Smollett guilty of staging race-baiting hate attack to boost career
CHICAGO — Nearly three years after he claimed two Trump-loving bigots beat him up, tied a noose around his neck and doused him in bleach, Jussie Smollett was convicted Thursday of staging a hate crime in a misbegotten bid to raise his public profile.
Twelve jurors in Chicago criminal court found the disgraced actor guilty of five of six counts of felony disorderly conduct for filing a false police report following testimony from 13 witnesses and more than nine hours of deliberation.
As the jurors read out the verdict, Smollett, 39, stood huddled with his attorneys and kept his eyes trained on the panelists, remaining stoic as a phalanx of family members, who watched the eight-day trial from the front row of the gallery, sat frozen.
The actor, who took more than an hour to return to the courthouse to hear the jury’s verdict and now faces up to three years in jail, was later seen embracing his siblings, some of whom didn’t stand for the jury before the panelists left the courtroom.
Following the verdict, Smollett’s lead defense attorney Nenye Uche said the actor plans to fight the conviction on appeal.
“He’s committed to clearing his name, and he’s 100 percent confident that he’s going to get cleared by the appellate court,” Uche told reporters.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the route we wanted but sometimes that’s the route that you have to take to win, especially a case where we remain 100 percent confident in our client’s innocence.”
The guilty verdict is the final chapter in the made-for-TV saga that jurors found Smollett not just starred in but directed from start to finish when he asked two men to “fake beat him up,” gave them a script of homophobic and racist slurs to deliver, and selected a stage for the phony beatdown that he thought was in direct view of surveillance cameras.
Special prosecutor Dan Webb celebrated the conviction late Thursday as he ripped Smollett for “lying” on the stand and “insulting” the jury’s intelligence.
“Not only did Mr. Smollett lie to the police and wreak havoc here in this city for weeks on end for no reason whatsoever, but then he compounded the problem by lying under oath to a jury,” Webb railed.
“That verdict is a resounding message by the jury that in fact Mr. Smollett did exactly what we said he did.”
In the absence of smoking-gun evidence, the trial came down to whose story was more believable, Smollett’s, or Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo’s — and in the end, the brothers won.
“It is time to cut the act, just come clean,” said Gloria Schmidt-Rodriguez, the Osundairos’ attorney.
“You are still your mother’s child if you did this, you will still be the person that so many people love you for. Humans are forgiving, people will forgive you … I have forgiven you.”
During the trial, the defense vehemently maintained Smollett was the victim of a real hate crime and called the brothers “sophisticated liars and criminals,” who later offered to recant their story and “tell the truth” in exchange for $2 million.
“He’s dumb enough to go into Obama’s city and pretend there’s Trump supporters running around with MAGA hats? Give me a break,” Uche told jurors in his closing arguments.
“The brothers were like wolves disguised as sheep in the henhouse.”
Prosecutors, however, said Smollett exploited tense race relations for his own gain and paid the Osundairos $3,500 to stage the attack so he could get attention.
“It’s clearly a violation of the law to go to the police and report to police a fake crime and tell police it’s a real crime,” Webb told the jury.
“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 our country was just plain wrong to do it and he did.”
The two brothers, who’d known the former “Empire” actor for about a year and a half prior to the hoax, both delivered hours-long testimonies as the prosecution’s star witnesses. Abimbola, 28, told jurors that he and Smollett met at a club in the fall of 2017 and soon became so close, he considered the actor to be a “brother.”
So when Smollett texted him on January 25, 2019, asking him for some “help on the low,” he agreed to meet up with the actor, who brought up a piece of hate mail he received that showed a stick figure hanging and the words “You will die black f-g.”
“He talked about how the studio was not taking the mail seriously, the hate mail he’d received earlier,” Abimbola testified.
“I was confused, I looked puzzled and then he explained that he wanted me to fake beat him up.”
Abimbola, who is now an amateur boxer, said Smollett told him specific lines he wanted the brothers to deliver — “‘Empire’, f—-t, n—-r, MAGA” — and then gave blow-by-blow instructions.
“He wanted me to punch him but he wanted me to pull the punch so I didn’t hurt him and then he wanted me to tussle him and throw him to the ground and give him a bruise,” Abimbola testified.
“Then he wanted it to look like he was fighting back, so I was supposed to give him a chance to fight back and then eventually throw him to the ground and my brother would tie the noose around his neck and pour bleach on him.”
During a “dry run” two days later, Abimbola testified Smollett showed the brothers a location for the fake attack that was in direct view of surveillance cameras because he “wanted to use the camera footage for media.”
The brothers admitted they found the request bizarre, but agreed to take part because Smollett was famous, and could help them with their own budding acting careers down the line.
“I mentioned to Ola that I did feel indebted to Jussie and that he’s helped me out and he could actually further our acting career and Ola agreed,” Abimbola said.
From the onset, the defense’s case largely centered on attacking the Osundairos’ credibility and establishing reasonable doubt by presenting a series of witnesses who chipped away at the brothers’ story.
Smollett’s former publicist Pamela Sharp testified the actor loathed media attention, and Anthony Moore, a security guard patrolling near the scene of the phony attack, told jurors he’s adamant that he saw a white man running away from the area and prosecutors pressured him to change his story.
But following a three-day break from the trial, and bombshell testimony from both Osundairos, Smollett unexpectedly took the stand Monday morning and testified that everything the brothers said was a “boldfaced lie.”
“There was no hoax,” Smollett told jurors.
“What happened to me, happened.”
He explained that on the night he met Abimbola, the two did cocaine together and later made out and touched each other inside a private room at Steamworks, a gay bathhouse in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood.
The actor testified the two later masturbated together at the same bathhouse and Abimbola frequently purchased cocaine and marijuana for him, and spoke about being his security guard.
“Security was mentioned a lot … it just came in passing like ‘Yo man, you should let me be your security,’” Smollett told jurors.
“It became a running joke, he would act like we were Secret Service when we were together.”
The defense pointed out that security guards for Smollett could reap as much as $5,000 per month but the only thing the actor wanted to hire Abimbola for was fitness-related.
He testified the $3,500 he paid Abimbola was for personal training services and a meal plan when he needed to lose weight ahead of a music video shoot, and when he texted him asking for his “help on the low,” it was about herbal steroids that are illegal in the US — nothing more.
Over and over again, the former “Mighty Ducks” actor denied instructing the brothers to stage a hate crime, and while under cross-examination Tuesday, grew testy and combative when Webb grilled him about inconsistencies in his story.
When Smollett originally spoke to cops, he said one of the attackers was white — an assumption he made primarily based on the vitriolic statements that were uttered — but later told cops the assailant was “pale skinned” because it was the “responsible” thing to do.
Prosecutors said the hoax was originally scheduled for the evening of January 28, 2019, but was pushed back to 2 a.m. January 29 when a flight Smollett was taking from New York back to Chicago was delayed for several hours.
In the lead-up to the ruse, Smollett acquiesced that he’d sent four messages to Abimbola giving him status updates on his delayed flight but claimed it was because he and the trainer had plans to work out that night, while prosecutors said the texts were proof that they were coordinating with each other.
The hate crime Smollett claimed he suffered sparked international outrage, and then disgust when police said he’d made the whole thing up.
The actor was originally charged with staging a hate crime in February 2019, but in a stunning reversal, Chicago prosecutors dropped all charges against him after he agreed to forfeit a $10,000 bond and showed proof that he’d completed two days of community service.
In the backdrop of Smollett’s failed performance as a hate crime victim, scandal soon engulfed Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who was widely criticized for the move and was later found to have made a series of unethical blunders in her handling of the case.
A former state appellate judge, Sheila O’Brien, managed to convince a judge that a special prosecutor was needed to probe the office’s handling of the case, and in a scathing ruling that summer, Judge Michael Toomin agreed, and appointed Webb to reinvestigate, leading to renewed charges against Smollett in February 2020.
Outside court late Thursday, Schmidt-Rodriguez thanked O’Brien on behalf of her clients.
“There is one unsung hero in all of this and my clients really want to make sure she gets the credit she deserves and that is retired Judge Sheila O’Brien. Without the judge, we don’t have the office of the special prosecutor. We don’t have people being held accountable. We don’t have the verdict that we have today,” Schmidt-Rodriguez said.
“We thank you for having the guts to file that motion, seeking an appointment of the office of the special prosecutor. Without your guts, and without your gumption, we would not be here today having this closure.”