Jussie Smollett, the former Empire actor whose career came to a crashing halt after he was accused of staging a racist and anti-gay attack against himself, was convicted Thursday of fabricating the attack.
The incident on Jan. 29, 2019, in Chicago generated a whiplash of headlines from the very beginning after the actor told police two men yelling racist and anti-gay slurs attacked and poured a chemical on him and tied a rope around his neck.
Days later, police arrested two brothers — former extras from the set of the Fox drama Empire — but released them after investigators said new evidence had surfaced during their questioning. Authorities eventually accused Smollett, who was 36 at the time, of paying the two men $3,500 to stage the attack in order to generate sympathetic media coverage.
But weeks later, the initial charges against Smollett were dropped by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, even though it stood by the police investigation that led to the allegations.
Smollett has maintained in court and in public that he was not behind the attack, but in February 2020, a special prosecutor unveiled a new grand jury indictment against the actor, charging him with six felony counts of disorderly conduct for making a false report to police. He was found guilty of five and not guilty of one of those counts on Thursday.
Two of those counts were for filing a false report of a hate crime, and three were for making a false report that he was the victim of battery. Each of those counts has a maximum sentence of three years behind bars.
He was found not guilty of one count of disorderly conduct for falsely claiming he was the victim of aggravated assault.
Smollett's attorney Nenye Uche told reporters shortly after the verdict was announced that they planned to appeal, calling the verdict "inconsistent."
"You cannot say Jussie is lying and Jussie is not lying for the same exact incident," Uche said. "So we feel 100% confident that this case will be won on appeal."
Special Prosecutor Dan Webb praised the jury's decision to convict Smollett of all but one of the charges that had been filed against him, and he blasted the actor for lying on the witness stand.
"I told the jury that I thought the evidence was overwhelming that in fact Mr. Smollett had faked the hate crime and lied to the police about it," Webb told reporters at the courthouse. "Then he compounded his crimes by lying to the jury during the course of this trial and insulting their intelligence."
Jurors deliberated roughly nine hours before reaching their verdict, trying to dissect two contradicting versions of what happened the early morning of Jan. 29, 2019.
In making their case to the jury, prosecutors called on the two men who were initially arrested and accused of the attack: Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo.
Abimbola Osundairo testified that Smollett approached them via text message to meet them "on the low" and later explained he "wanted me to fake beat him up." Osundairo told jurors that Smollett specifically asked to get bruised and doused with bleach before being tied up with a rope. He also claimed that the trio drove around the neighborhood the day before the attack to see where Smollet wanted it to take place.
Smollett then gave the brothers $100 to buy supplies, including masks, rope, and a red hat to suggest the attackers were supporters of former president Donald Trump, Osundairo said.
But attorneys for Smollett argued the attack was indeed real and suggested the brothers' account was a ploy to escape charges for the assault.
When the former Empire actor took the witness stand Monday, he suggested the two brothers may have had other motivations.
Smollett also testified that he and Abimbola Osundairo had developed a sexual relationship, which was refuted by Osundairo.
After Smollett received a threatening letter on the set of the Empire studio on Jan. 22, 2019, the actor testified that Osundairo started asking him about becoming his bodyguard.
But Smollett told jurors he never spoke to Osundairo, or his brother Ola Osundairo, about staging an attack to boost his public profile.
"Did you give him the check as payment for some silly hoax?" Uche asked the actor.
"Never," Smollett responded.
Smollett also claimed the $3,500 check made out to Abimbola Osundairo had not been for the staged attack, but for workout training to get in shape for a music video. His attorneys also argued the attack was carried out to persuade Smollett to hire the brothers as personal security.
As for a text message asking for help "on the low," Smollett testified he was asking the brothers for help getting an herbal steroid from Nigeria.
Smollett also rebutted testimony from police officers who handled the case and pointed to what they referred to as inconsistencies in his story of the attack.
For example, Smollett had refused to give investigators his cellphone, but the actor claimed it was in order to protect his privacy.
Asked why a batch of phone records he provided did not include a call to Abimbola Osundairo that took place about 70 minutes before the attack, Smollett said police had only instructed him to provide call records an hour before and after the attack.
In his closing arguments, Webb argued that not only had Smollett reported a phony hate crime, but he accused the actor of repeatedly lying on the witness stand, telling jurors Smollet had "tailored his testimony" to fit facts and surveillance footage that couldn't be denied.
Following the verdict's announcement on Thursday, Webb blasted the actor, saying he "wreak[ed] havoc on this city" with the faked attack.
The verdict, Webb said, not only provided real answers to the city, but it vindicated the Chicago police officers who had investigated the case.
Webb said that although charges of perjury are rarely filed after a defendant is convicted, that he would bring up the issue during Smollett's sentencing hearing.
"I don't think lying under oath is acceptable for a defendant," Webb said.
Meanwhile, Uche criticized the Chicago police, saying that a "quality investigation" was never done, and the incident should have been investigated "much more thoroughly."
At trial, Smollett's attorney had attacked the prosecution's leading witnesses, accusing the Osundairo siblings of lying and giving prepped responses "like RoboCop."
"This case is crazy," Uche told jurors, according to the Tribune. "There is a lot that has been said, a lot of assumptions. And it's real tough. You have the power. You are the ones to decide whether this makes sense."