Jussie Smollett hatched a “secret plan” with two brothers to carry out a staged racist and homophobic attack against him because he was upset with how the studio behind “Empire” had responded to a piece of hate mail he had received a week earlier, prosecutors said Monday.
The trial of Smollett, who faces multiple felony charges for allegedly filing false police reports following this alleged 2019 hoax attack, began Monday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building with jury selection and opening statements.
“In January 2019, he developed a secret plan that would make it appear there was actually a hate crime that occurred against him by supporters of Donald Trump,” special prosecutor Dan Webb told jurors.
Smollett arrived at the Leighton Criminal Court Building at around 9 a.m. Monday, surrounded by several family members and his legal team.
Smollett claimed to be the victim of a January 2019 attack by two men near his Streeterville apartment, whom he claimed had yelled racist and homophobic slurs before they hit him in his face, poured “an unknown chemical substance” on him and wrapped a rope around his neck.
Much of the prosecution’s case is expected to rely on the testimony of Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, the two brothers Smollett allegedly paid to fake the 2019 attack on him. They pair have told investigators Smollett paid them $3,500 in order to carry out the alleged hoax.
But Smollett insisted that was a payment to one of the brothers for personal trainer services.
According to Webb, Smollett planned the fake attack because he had received an anonymous and threatening hate letter earlier that month and felt the “Empire” executives and studio were not taking it seriously enough.
Smollett had become friends with Abimbola Osundairo over the course of the previous year, and recruited him and Olabinjo, telling them step-by-step how to carry out the attack, from yelling out specific racist and homophobic slurs, to pulling punches when they hit him to putting a rope around his neck.
Before the attack, the men carried out a “dry run” with Smollett driving the brothers to the area in Streeterville where he wanted the attack to occur, Webb said. He also allegedly gave them $100 to buy supplies — including a ski mask, a red hat to mimic the “Make America Great Again” hat won by Trump supporters and a rope.
Shortly after the incident, Smollett was seen on a surveillance camera with the rope still around his neck. But when police arrived at his apartment a short time later, the knot in the rope appeared to be pushed up closer to Smollett’s neck, according to Webb.
“I believe Mr. Smollett wanted to make it look a little bit better if you will,” Webb said, suggesting Smollett wanted it to look like a lynching. “He wanted to make it look more serious.”
Smollett’s attorney Nenye Uche said “Empire” executives were actually trying to push security on him after he received the hate letter, but Smollett refused it. He claimed a "rush to judgment" by police officials following Smollett's arrest has ruined his client's life and turned him into a public pariah.
Uche stressed his client is the “real victim” of an attack who was taken advantage of by two “sophisticated, highly-intelligent criminals” in the Osundairo brothers.
“He was a mark, he was a target, and (the Osundairo brothers) had an agenda, which they executed, unfortunately, successfully,” he said.
Uche argued the Osundairos only pretended to be friends with Smollett and that they had the “capacity, motive and capability to do what they did to Jussie,” referring to high-powered weapons and drugs that Chicago police found during a search of the brothers’ home.
He said the brothers have changed their story multiple times, while Smollett’s version of events has remained the same throughout the investigation.
“There has never been a part one, there has never been a part two, there has never been a remix,” Uche said.
Smollett faces six counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly making false reports to multiple different Chicago police officers. Those include allegedly false reports of a battery and a hate crime made to two separate officers, a report of a battery made to a third officer, and then a report of an aggravated battery made to another officer.
He has pleaded not guilty and has continuously maintained his innocence.
Jury selection and COVID restrictions
Jury selection lasted around six hours Monday, with Cook County Judge James Linn asking prospective jurors questions on topics ranging from their past jury service and if they'd been the victim of a hate crime, to whether they watched “Empire” or the entertainment tabloid TMZ.
Prospective jurors were also asked about their preferred news media and whether they are members of any civil rights, pro-police or defund-the-police organizations. Eventually, 12 jurors and two alternates were selected.
With COVID-19 restrictions still in place inside the courthouse, several court personnel donned masks and attorneys were seated at tables separated by plexiglass dividers.
"We take this very seriously and we will continue in a safe manner," Linn told prospective jurors Monday morning.
Before proceedings began Monday morning, members of the media were informed they would not be allowed to view jury selection inside the courtroom. Linn cited COVID-19 distancing restrictions in ordering the gallery cleared for anyone but potential jurors.
Reporters were instead told they could follow jury selection from a separate courtroom across the hall, but no closed circuit video or audio streaming were made available. Eventually, Linn allowed pool reporters into court to document the selection process.
The case is scheduled to continue Tuesday morning, and the trial is expected to wrap up either this week or early next week.