After deliberating for more than nine hours, a jury found actor Jussie Smollett guilty of lying to police about being the victim of a hate crime. The verdict comes after six days of testimony, during which Smollett took the stand for several hours to speak in his own defense.
Smollett was charged with six counts of felony disorderly conduct, which is how Illinois law classifies false police reports. He was found guilty of five of those counts and not guilty of one. Although the charges are class 4 felonies (the least serious in Illinois), Smollett could still face several years in prison. That said, probation and community service are just as likely considering Smollett’s lack of criminal history and the fact that no one was seriously hurt.
The charges stemmed from an incident in January 2019, when Smollett told cops he’d been on his way back to his Chicago apartment following a late-night trip to Subway, when two men attacked him and beat him up, yelling racist and homophobic slurs and hanging a noose around his neck. In the weeks following the report, Smollett himself became a suspect in the incident. Authorities accused him of staging the attack himself. Brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo testified that Smollett had paid them to attack him as a publicity stunt. Prosecutors said he’d arranged the attack because he was dissatisfied with the Empire studio’s response to hate mail he’d received while working as an actor on the show. Smollett, who is Black and gay, maintained his innocence. “There was no hoax,” he said on the witness stand.
During closing arguments on Wednesday, Dec. 8., Jussie Smollett’s lead defense attorney and a special prosecutor made their final appeals to the jury over whether he was the victim of a hate crime or the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax.
Dan Webb, the prosecutor, spoke first, per the Chicago Tribune. He insisted the evidence that Smollett falsely reported a hate crime was “overwhelming,” and added: “Beyond that, it’s just plain wrong for Mr. Smollett… 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.”
Webb zeroed in on Smollett’s own testimony in his defense, arguing that he made “many, many false statements” under oath, and that he “tailor[ed]” his testimony about his relationship and actions with the Osundairo brothers to fit surveillance footage.
Security footage of Smollett meeting with the Osundairos in the days before the attack played a major role in the prosecution’s case, especially Jan. 27 video, which prosecutors argued showed Smollett and the Osundairos meeting, getting in a car and carrying out a “dry run” of the attack (the incident occurred two days later on Jan. 29). While Smollett testified that the footage actually showed him meeting with the Osundairos for a planned workout, Webb stated in his closing argument, “When he went over there he didn’t ever park his car. He never went into his building to work out, it never happened… If there weren’t surveillance evidence he would have told you he didn’t drive around [the area of the attack] three times.”
Elsewhere, Webb highlighted Smollett’s refusal to turn over cellphone, medical records or DNA to police, citing privacy concerns. But some text messages between Smollett and Abimbola Osunddairo were entered as evidence, and Webb mentioned a potentially damning one where Smollett asked Abimbola for some help “on the low.” While Smollett said he wanted Abimbola to get him an herbal steroid in Nigeria, Webb noted in his closing statement that Smollett couldn’t even identify the steroid when he was testifying.
Additionally, Webb mentioned Smollett’s initial claim to police that his attackers were white; Smollett later testified he didn’t know who attacked him and he only saw one attacker, who was wearing a ski mask. Webb argued that this claim was nonsense and that there was plenty of evidence that the Osundairos were the attackers. Webb argued that Smollett first saying his attackers were white gave his hate crime allegation “more credibility.”
Webb even brought up an ostensibly small, but potentially telling detail from the night of the attack, with Smollett claiming he’d left his apartment in the middle of the night not to meet the Osundairos at a designated place, but because he needed to buy eggs. “Either he had plans to be there with the brothers, or he likes eggs,” Webb quipped.
Smollett’s defense attorney, Nenye Uche, attempted to undercut the prosecution’s arguments primarily by casting doubt — and some not-so-subtle aspersions — on the Osundairos and their testimony. He called the pair “sophisticated liars and criminals,” insinuated their testimony was coached (“They responded like Robocop”), and wondered aloud if the attack was prompted by homophobia.
During his testimony, Smollett claimed that he and Abimbola had had a brief sexual relationship, which Abimbola had denied when Smollett’s lawyers asked him about it on the stand previously. In his closing argument, Uche said, “Is it a thing where [Olabinjo] has hatred towards Jussie because he’s gay and [Abimbola], the younger brother, is trying to prove to his older brother ‘I’m not gay so I’m going to [attack Smollett]?’ I don’t know.”
In response to the prosecution’s argument that Smollett refused to hand over his cellphone, medical records, and DNA, Uche argued that the actor’s privacy concerns were legitimate and he eventually did turn over DNA to the FBI: “He wasn’t hiding anything,” Uche said. Uche also offered up a narrative alternative for the alleged Jan. 27 “dry run,” saying Smollett was actually just driving around the block smoking weed.
When it came to Smollett’s alleged orchestration of the plot, Uche argued that the prosecution never made a clear case as to why the actor would do such a thing. He claimed they’ve thrown out an array of motives, none of which are credible, from accusing Smollett of wanting better security, more publicity or even “basically start[ing] a race war.” Furthermore, Uche claimed, Smollett essentially “anti-motive,” suggesting the actor wouldn’t have wanted to purposely mess up his face or body ahead before shooting a big Empire scene and a music video.
Near the end of his speech, Uche said that there were still so many unknowns and unanswered questions hovering over the case, which, he argued, precluded convicting Smollett. Uche even shared a “Christmas wishlist” of question he wanted answers to, such as the identity of a man in a car seen apparently loitering near the site of the attack and whether or not the Osundairos had their phones on them that night.
“This case is crazy,” Uche said. “And there a lot that has been said, a lot of assumptions. And it’s been real tough. You have the power. You are the ones to decide whether this makes sense.”
Smollett is free to leave court today but is scheduled to meet with the judge via Zoom on Jan. 27, per WGN. He’ll appear in court for his sentencing at a later date.