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Jussie Smollett: Ex-Empire star staged racist and homophobic attack after TV studio failed to take hate mail seriously, trial hears

·3-min read
Jussie Smollett arriving at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for jury selection at his trial in Chicago  (AP)
Jussie Smollett arriving at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for jury selection at his trial in Chicago (AP)

US actor Jussie Smollett staged a racist and homophobic assault and told police he was the victim after the TV studio where he worked did not take hate mail he had received seriously, his trial heard.

The ex-Empire star has maintained he was the victim in the January 2019 attack in downtown Chicago, which he claimed was carried out by supporters of then-president Donald Trump - igniting political divisions around the country.

But special prosecutor Dan Webb said the actor recruited two brothers he worked with to help him carry out the fake attack.

He then reported it to Chicago police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 hours on the investigation.

“When he reported the fake hate crime that was a real crime,” Mr Webb as the trial got underway in Chicago on Monday.

Two brothers say Smollett paid them $3,500 (£2,626) to pose as his attackers.

Smollett, who arrived at the courthouse with his mother and other family members, is accused of lying to police about the alleged attack and has been charged with felony disorderly conduct. He has denied wrongdoing.

Mr Webb told jurors Smollett was unhappy about how the studio handled a letter he received that included a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree and “MAGA,” a reference to Mr Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan.

The prosecutor said Smollett then “devised this fake crime,” holding a “dress rehearsal” with the two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and “MAGA.”

Smollett also told the brothers to buy ski masks, red hats and “a rope to make it look like a hate crime,” Mr Webb told jurors. The brothers used a $100 bill that Smollett gave them to buy the supplies, he said.

He said Smollett wanted the attack captured on surveillance video, but the camera he thought would record the hoax was pointed in the wrong direction. He also said the original plan called for the men to throw gasoline on Smollett but that they opted for bleach instead because it would be safer.

Smollett’s lawyer rejected the accusation the actor staged the attack, telling the jury he is “is a real victim” of a “real crime”.

Nenye Uche said the brothers attacked Smollett because they did not like him and that the $3,500 cheque the actor paid the men was for training so he could prepare for an upcoming music video.

The lawyer also suggested a third attacker was involved and told jurors there is not a “shred” of physical and forensic evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.

“Jussie Smollett is a real victim,” Mr Uche said.

Mr Webb was named as special prosecutor in the case after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office dropped the original charges filed against Smollett. A new indictment was returned in 2020.

Twelve jurors plus three alternate jurors were sworn in a trial expected to take about one week.

During jury selection, Judge James Linn asked potential jurors if they have been the victim of a hate crime, if they have watched Empire or the celebrity news website TMZ.

It is unclear whether Smollett, who is black and gay, will testify.

The class 4 felony he is accused of 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.

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