Jussie Smollett hate crime hoax

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On January 29, 2019, American actor Jussie Smollett reported to the Chicago Police Department a fake hate crime that he had staged earlier that morning.[1][2] Smollett had planned the event with two Nigerian American brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who had worked with Smollett as extras on the set of his television drama, Empire. Smollett got the brothers to physically attack him with his consent while wearing ski masks. During the attack, which took place in the 300 block of East Lower North Water Street in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood, the brothers shouted racial and homophobic slurs while one poured bleach on him and the other placed a noose around his neck. In addition to falsely reporting that he had been attacked against his will by two unknown individuals, Smollett described one of them as a white male.[3][2] Smollett also told police the men shouted "MAGA country" during the attack, a reference to the political slogan Make America Great Again.[4] The brothers would later testify at trial that Smollett had them stage the attack near a police surveillance camera in order to get video of the assault that could be shared by the media.[5]

On February 13, 2019, Chicago police raided the home of the Osundairo brothers and found records indicating they had been paid $3,500 by Smollett. They had purchased the rope found around Smollett's neck at a hardware store in Ravenswood over the weekend of January 25. They were also seen in the security camera footage in a clothing store where they bought gloves, ski masks, and a red hat that police said was used in the attack.[6][7] On February 20, 2019, Smollett was indicted for disorderly conduct for paying the brothers to stage a fake hate crime assault on him and filing a false police report.[8] Smollett's defense team reached a deal with prosecutors on March 26, 2019, in which all charges were dropped in return for Smollett performing community service and forfeiting his $10,000 bond.[9]

On April 12, 2019, the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit in the Cook County Circuit Court against Smollett for the cost of overtime authorities expended investigating the alleged attack, totaling $130,105.15. In November 2019, Smollett filed a counter-suit against the city of Chicago alleging he was the victim of "mass public ridicule and harm" and arguing he should not be made to reimburse the city for the cost of the investigation.

On February 11, 2020, after further investigation by a special prosecutor was completed, Smollett was indicted again by a Cook County grand jury on six counts pertaining to making four false police reports.[10][11] In December 2021, Smollett was convicted on five felony counts.[12]

Staged hate crime[edit]

On January 22, 2019, a letter arrived at the Chicago studio of Smollett's employer that was addressed to Smollett and depicted a stick figure hanging from a tree with a gun pointing towards it. It read "Smollett, Jussie you will die" and "MAGA", and contained a white powder determined to be Tylenol.[13] On January 29, 2019, Smollett said that he was attacked in the early morning of that day in the 300 block of East Lower North Water Street in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood,[14] in what was initially investigated as a hate crime.[3][15] Chicago police later alleged that Smollett was responsible for orchestrating the attack.[16]

Smollett told police that he was attacked by two men, who were "yelling out racial and homophobic slurs" and who "poured an unknown chemical substance on [him]".[3][17] He described one of them as white, while in reality, both are black.[18][2] They allegedly began to beat him about the face, using their hands, feet, and teeth as weapons in the assault.[19] According to a statement released by the Chicago Police Department, the two suspects then "poured an unknown chemical substance on the victim" and at some point during the incident "wrapped a rope around the victim's neck".[20] Smollett said that he fought them off. There were surveillance cameras at the location that Smollett assumed had captured the incident, but as it turned out they were facing in the wrong direction.[21] According to the brothers' lawyer Gloria Rodriguez, he first drove them to the spot where the attack was supposed to occur for a “dress rehearsal”, and told them “Here’s a camera, there’s a camera and here’s where you are going to run away”.[22] The brothers explained his plan was to post the footage on social media,[5] and he was very upset when the police told him that no cameras had recorded the attack.[23] Smollett was treated at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Not seriously injured, he was released "in good condition" later that morning.[3][24][25]

The police had been called after 2:30 am by his manager Frank Gatson,[26][27] which infuriated Smollett because he didn't want to involve the police.[28] When they arrived around 2:40 am, Smollett had a white rope around his neck.[29] He later admitted removing the rope and then putting it back on before the police arrived after his manager told him to do so.[30] Smollett said that the attack may have been motivated by his criticism of the Trump administration[31] and that he believed that the alleged assault was linked to the threatening letter that had been sent to him earlier that month.[13]

Initial public reaction to incident[edit]

On January 30, 2019, public figures expressed support for Smollett on social media.[15][32] Entertainment industry figures, including Shonda Rhimes and Viola Davis, tweeted their outrage over the attack and support for Smollett.[32] Democratic Senators and presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker both described the attack as an attempted modern-day lynching.[33] Booker urged Congress to pass a federal anti-lynching bill co-sponsored by him and Harris.[32][34] In an interview with April Ryan of AURN, President Trump was asked about Smollett being attacked and said, "I think that's horrible. It doesn't get worse."[35] Smollett faced skepticism regarding his claim of being attacked;[36] he responded by saying that he believed that, if he had said his attackers were Mexicans, Muslims, or black people, "the doubters would have supported me much more ... And that says a lot about the place that we are in in our country right now."[36]

Investigation[edit]

On February 13, 2019, Chicago police raided the home of two "persons of interest" in the case. The men were Nigerian immigrant brothers who'd acted as extras on Empire.[37] Police recovered bleach and other items from the home.[38] The brothers were held in police custody on suspicion of battery but were not charged.[39] According to the brothers' attorney, they knew Smollett from working on the show and had also spent time with him at a gym.[39] The two men were released February 15 without being charged with a crime,[40][41] with Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi stating their release was "due to new evidence" from the interrogations.[40]

The Chicago Police Department later told ABC News: "Police are investigating whether the two individuals committed the attack—or whether the attack happened at all."[42] On February 16, two unnamed Chicago police sources informed CNN that Chicago police had discovered evidence indicating that Smollett had paid the two brothers $3,500 to stage the attack.[43][44] Financial records indicate that the brothers purchased the rope found around Smollett's neck at a hardware store in Ravenswood over the weekend of January 25.[45][46] They were seen in security camera footage in a clothing store where they bought the gloves, ski masks and a red hat that police said was used in the attack. The brothers asked specifically for a MAGA hat, which the store does not sell.[47] Chicago Police contacted Smollett's attorney for additional questioning.[39]

The FBI began investigating whether Smollett was involved in the threatening letter that was sent to him the week before the incident.[13]

On February 19, 2019, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx said that she was recusing herself from the investigation due to her "familiarity with potential witnesses in the case", prompting criticism from her predecessor, Anita Alvarez. Foxx delegated the case to a subordinate.[48][49] Foxx later acknowledged that she had been in contact with a member of Smollett's family about the case at an early stage when Smollett was thought to have been a crime victim. Foxx added that Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson had reached out to the FBI about handing the Smollett case off to them, but had informed her that the FBI was not interested. Foxx's office later asserted that Foxx had not formally recused herself from the case; doing so would have required her to ask the court to appoint an outside attorney as a special prosecutor.[50][51]

Police alleged that Smollett staged the attack because he was dissatisfied with his pay on Empire.[52]

Smollett hired crisis manager Chris Bastardi to represent him.[53]

Criminal charges, arrest, and trial[edit]

On February 20, 2019, Smollett was charged by a grand jury with a class 4 felony for filing a false police report.[54][55][56] Smollett's felony count charge in Illinois carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.[54] Smollett hired attorney Mark Geragos in addition to Chicago-based attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson to work on his legal defense.[57]

The next day, Smollett surrendered himself at the Chicago Police Department's Central Booking station; shortly thereafter, CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi stated that Smollett "is under arrest and in the custody of detectives".[58][59] Guglielmi also said that Smollett was named as suspect in a criminal investigation for filing a fake police report, under a class 4 felony.[60]

Later that day, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson held a press conference, gave details of the investigation, and explained how the department concluded that the alleged assault was staged.[61][62] The brothers, Abimbola "Bola" (also known as Abel) and Olabinjo "Ola" Osundairo, who say they helped stage the attack, also said that Smollett came up with the idea to orchestrate the attack after the threatening letter he received did not generate as much attention as he had hope it would.[63] In addition to the rope around his neck, the original plan was to pour gasoline over him, but they decided to use bleach instead.[64] Police alleged that the actor intended to further his career by tying the incident to racism in the United States and President Trump, and that Smollett sent himself the threatening letter.[61]

Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr. set Smollett's bail at $100,000; a friend of the actor paid a $10,000 bond, and Smollett was released from custody on February 21.[65][66][67] Smollett was required to surrender his passport.[68]

Grand jury indictment

On March 8, Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts of "false report of offense" related to the incident.[69][70][71][72]

In March 2019, the New York Post reported that Tina Tchen, a Chicago attorney who served as former first lady Michelle Obama's chief of staff, had contacted Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx about the Smollett case on February 1. Emails and text messages indicated that on February 1, Foxx informed both Tchen and an unnamed Smollett relative that she had asked Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson to request that the FBI take over the Smollett investigation. Foxx added that Johnson had agreed to make that request.[73][74]

On March 14, 2019, Smollett and his legal team entered a not guilty plea at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago.[75][76][77]

Initial charges dropped[edit]

On March 26, 2019, all charges filed against Smollett were dropped, with Judge Steven Watkins ordering the public court file sealed.[9][78] First Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Magats said the office reached a deal with Smollett's defense team in which prosecutors would drop the charges in exchange for Smollett performing 16 hours of community service[79][80][81] and forfeiting his $10,000 bond.[82][83][84]

Police report files on Smollett's case

The Illinois Prosecutors Bar Association (IPBA) said that the dismissal was "highly unusual", and that the "manner in which this case was dismissed was abnormal and unfamiliar to those who practice law in criminal courthouses across the state. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges alike do not recognize the arrangement Mr. Smollett received. Even more problematic, the State's Attorney and her representatives have fundamentally misled the public on the law and circumstances surrounding the dismissal."[85] It described several of the statements made by the State's Attorney and her representatives regarding the handling of the case as false or misleading.[86] The National District Attorneys Association released a statement saying that a prosecutor should not take advice from politically connected friends of the accused, should not recuse herself without recusing the entire office, and noted that "a case with the consequential effects of Mr. Smollett's should not be resolved without a finding of guilt or innocence."[87]

Magats made a statement saying that the decision was not an exoneration of Smollett: "We stand behind the investigation, we stand behind the decision to charge him [...] The fact that [Smollett] feels that we have exonerated him, we have not. I can't make it any clearer than that." Then-Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel strongly criticized the decision, saying it was a "whitewash of justice" and that "From top to bottom, this is not on the level." Police superintendent Johnson said that justice was not served.[9][88]

On March 27, 2019, the Chicago Police Department released the redacted police reports associated with the case.[89] It was announced that the FBI is investigating why the charges were dismissed.[90] The hearing to expunge Smollett's record was delayed on March 27.[91] In April 2019, mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot said in a statement: "We've got a lot of things on our plate, a lot of pressing issues that are truly affecting people's lives. This doesn't rank as a matter of any importance to me."[92]

Special prosecutor[edit]

On August 23, 2019, former United States Attorney Dan K. Webb was assigned as special prosecutor to review Jussie Smollett's case and the events leading to the charges being dropped.[93] Webb was tasked with reviewing the original case and charges surrounding Smollett's claim of being attacked. He was also allowed to look into why Foxx had dropped all of the charges against Smollett. Shortly after being assigned as special prosecutor, possible conflicts of interest were raised after a $1,000 donation to Kim Foxx's campaign had surfaced. His work was put on hiatus as a hearing was called for to decide whether Webb should continue.[94] In court, Judge Michael Toomin defended his appointment of Webb. The judge ruled Webb could continue to investigate as special prosecutor since his donation was "a routine practice of lawyers" and that it should have "no effect on his ability to be fair and impartial”.[95]

On December 6, 2019, a Cook County Circuit Court judge signed search warrants ordering Google to turn over Jussie Smollett's emails, photos, location data and private messages from November 2018 to November 2019, as part of the special prosecutor's investigation.[96]

Webb announced new charges on February 11, 2020. Smollett was indicted on six counts of felony disorderly conduct for lying to the police.[97] According to the special prosecutor, Smollett "faces six felony counts of disorderly conduct stemming from four separate false reports that he gave to police."[98][99]

Second trial[edit]

In March 2021, Smollett attempted to hire lawyer Nenya Uche to represent him, but prosecutors challenged the appointment with allegations of conflicts of interest.[100] The allegations stem from claims made by the Osundairo brothers to prosecutors that Uche had spoken to them about the facts of the case in 2019, with the Osundairos later writing sworn affidavits to back up their claims.[100] Uche has denied the allegations, saying he only met the Osundairos' mother and a family friend, and only to tell them he could not represent them because they already had representation.[100]

As of October 16, 2021, a judge had denied the defense's request to dismiss the case. Jury selection for Smollett's trial took place on November 29, 2021.[101][102][103][104] During the trial, Smollett's defense attorney accused the judge of attempting to attack her. The judge denied the claim as well as her motion for a mistrial.[105][106] During the 2021 trial, the prosecution revealed video footage of Smollett and the two "attackers" he hired rehearsing the staged attack.[107]

During his testimony, Smollett claimed, for the first time, that he had engaged in a "sexual relationship" with Abimbola Osundairo, one of the two brothers he hired to stage the attack.[108][109]

The jury delivered its verdict on December 9, 2021, finding Smollett guilty on five of the six counts of felony disorderly conduct.[110] A juror explained, anonymously, that Smollett was acquitted on the sixth charge was because the attack by masked assailants did occur, regardless of whether or not the attack was staged. (The sixth charge arose from a report made by Smollett two weeks after the attack to policeman Robert Graves.)[111][112]

Reaction[edit]

Smollett's character was subsequently removed from the final two episodes of Empire's fifth season.[113] The studio stated on April 30, 2019, that "at this time there are no plans for the character of Jamal to return to Empire."[114] Fox announced that Empire would be canceled at the end of Season 6.[114]

Following Smollett's arraignment, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson held a press conference in which he spoke about Smollett, asking, "Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile? How can an individual who's been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face with these false claims? Bogus police reports cause real harm." He further called the accusations "a scar" that "Chicago ... didn't earn and certainly didn't deserve."[115]

During a public statement, Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said, "Allegations against Mr. Smollett are shameful and if proven, they are an affront to the people of Chicago who embraced him as a neighbor and respected him as a role model... We stand behind the work of our detectives."[74]

Commentators have compared the alleged incident to the Tawana Brawley rape allegations and other racial hoaxes.[116][117][118][119][120][121][122]

Lawsuits[edit]

On March 28, 2019, Chicago city attorneys under the guidance of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, sent Smollett a demand letter, requiring him to repay the city the sum of $130,106.15 "expended on overtime hours in the investigation of this matter." The letter warned that if this amount was not paid, the Chicago Department of Law could prosecute Smollett for the alleged false statements to the city or "pursue any other legal remedy available at law". Under a cited statute, Smollett could face a fine of up to three times the damages the City sustained as a result of false statements. The city could also seek recovery of court costs, collection costs, and attorney fees.[123] A court would have to determine whether Smollett is liable under the statute using the standard of preponderance of evidence.[124] Smollett could be sued for $390,000 as the law allows for triple damages in the case of false reports.[125][126]

On April 12, 2019, the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County against Smollett for the cost of overtime authorities expended investigating the alleged attack, specified in the complaint as $130,105.15.[127][128] The suit further asked that Smollett be found liable for $1,000 "for each false statement he made to the city, in addition to three times the amount of the damages that the city sustained."[127] According to a local news legal analyst, the discovery process would be of interest to the public as city attorneys would be seeking evidence for the civil trial, stating "They'll get tape recordings. They'll get video surveillance, they'll get phone records and they'll take depositions."[127] On October 22, federal judge Virginia Kendall ruled that the lawsuit may proceed, after Smollett's lawyers had requested that it be dismissed because Smollett could not have predicted the level of expense from his police report.[129][130] In November 2019, Smollett filed a counter-suit against the city of Chicago alleging he was the victim of "mass public ridicule and harm" and should not be held to pay the $130,000 reimbursement the city is seeking.[131]

On April 23, 2019, the Osundairo brothers filed a federal defamation lawsuit against Smollett's legal team.[132][133]

References[edit]

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