Jussie Smollett will resume testifying in his defense Tuesday after taking the stand a day earlier to rebut allegations that he staged a fake hate crime in 2019 and lied to Chicago police about it.
The former “Empire” actor, who is Black and gay, testified for more than five hours Monday, denying he orchestrated the alleged attack, attempting to cast doubt on two of the prosecution’s primary witnesses, and describing the early morning incident and his distrust for police.
Special prosecutor Dan Webb began to cross-examine him Monday afternoon and will resume doing so when court begins Tuesday morning.
Smollett, 39, has pleaded not guilty to six counts of disorderly conduct for filing false police reports, a charge for which a conviction is punishable by up to three years in prison.
The trial is the culmination of a case that began on the frigid night of January 29, 2019, when Smollett told police two men had attacked him, made anti-gay and racist comments, poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck.
Celebrities, politicians and advocacy groups rallied behind the actor, and police poured significant resources into solving the case. But authorities soon came to believe the actor had paid the two men — brothers Bola and Ola Osundairo — $3,500 to fake a hate crime attack in order to garner sympathetic media coverage.
The outrage over the apparent hoax led authorities to bring charges of disorderly conduct against Smollett. They were dropped by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx weeks later, but a special prosecutor convened a grand jury and brought charges against him last year.
The trial began last week as prosecutors sought testimony from five police investigators and the Osundairo brothers, who said that Smollett concocted the hoax and directed them to what to say and do. Bola Osundairo said he agreed to the plan because, “I believed he could help further my acting career.”
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, have argued Smollett was a real victim of an attack and have suggested the Osundairo brothers had other motivations. The defense has called six witnesses in all, including Smollett’s publicist and a former executive on the TV show “Empire.”
The case is expected to be in the jury’s hands in the next day or two.
Smollett laid out his version of the attack
In his testimony, Smollett laid out his version of what happened on the night of January 29, 2019.
He told the court he was walking back to the staircase of his building after returning from a Subway sandwich shop when he heard his alleged attackers yell the word “Empire.” He said he kept walking and heard the words “f****t” and “Empire n***er.”
Smollett told the jury he then became furious, turned around and yelled, “What the f**k did you say to me?” The men then walked toward him very quickly, and he fell and began tussling with his attackers, Smollett testified.
He did not realize until after the attack there was a rope tied around his neck, he testified, “because I was getting my ass whooped.”
He testified that one of his alleged attackers had fair skin under a ski mask, and, combined with the things they said, he assumed they were White men.
While describing the attack, Smollett appeared to briefly get emotional, prompting his attorney to ask whether he was alright.
Police responded to his apartment after the attack and the first officers on scene were very nice, Smollett said. But his relationship with Chicago police began to deteriorate after police said that his attackers wore red Make America Great Again hats, which Smollett testified he had never told them.
He testified he declined to give a police detective his cell phone when she asked for it because he didn’t think police believed his story.
In cross-examination, Webb, the special prosecutor, questioned Smollett about the noose on his neck when police arrived. He pulled up side-by-side images of Smollett — one with the noose on while walking into his building and one when police arrived — and noted differences in the appearance of the rope.
Smollett denied tampering with the rope. He testified he took the noose off after getting back to his building. However, he testified his manager then told him, “you can’t be f**king with evidence,” so he put the rope back around his neck before police arrived.
One of the officers who testified early last week for the prosecution said he arrived to find Smollett with a noose around his neck.
“My first reaction was to ask if he wanted to take it off… he responded by saying he’d like to take it off but he wanted us to see it first,” Officer Muhammad Baig testified.
Smollett explains relationship with Osundairo brothers
Smollett on Monday touched on the days leading up to the alleged hate crime and his relationship with Bola and Ola Osundairo, brothers he knew from the set of the TV show “Empire.”
Prosecutors say the brothers were paid by Smollett to stage an attack because he was disappointed in the way executives with the TV show responded to a hate letter he received. The defense has countered that Smollett had paid the men for training and nutritional advice.
The defense has suggested at points during the trial that homophobia may have been a motive in a real hate crime attack against Smollett.
In his testimony, Smollett said Bola Osundairo would help him get drugs, including cocaine. He also said the two had forged a sexual relationship. Smollett testified they got a private room at a Chicago bathhouse one night and “did more drugs and like, made out.”
On a separate occasion, Smollett told jurors he and Bola Osundairo snuck away from his brother after the three were at a female strip club together. Smollett testified they again got a private room and “made out a little bit, masturbated together.”
Smollett’s testimony contradicted that of Bola Osundairo last week. He denied they had a sexual relationship and said he “didn’t know” there was even any sexual tension.
The defense has struggled to make headway on this point. Last week, during cross-examination of Ola Osundairo, a defense attorney asked him about his use of words that they say paint him as homophobic.
However, the judge told them to move on to another line of questioning. Defense attorney Tamara Walker then asked for a mistrial, sobbed in court and said the judge had “lunged” at her during a sidebar conversation. The judge denied the accusation and denied the motion for a mistrial, saying he was stunned by the request.
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