Jury selection started Monday in the trial of former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, who is accused of making false reports to authorities that he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in 2019.
Smollett, 39, was indicted on six counts last year by a Cook County, Illinois, grand jury, but the actor has insisted on his innocence, repeatedly denying he orchestrated the attack. His attorney pleaded not guilty on his behalf. The six-count indictment — the most recent twist in a case that gripped the nation from the start — came after 16 felony disorderly conduct counts Smollett was previously facing were unexpectedly dropped.
Judge James Linn said during an October hearing no cameras will be allowed in court. On the same day attorneys for the actor made a final push to have the case dismissed. The judge denied the motion.
With the trial kicking off more than two years after Smollett said he was attacked, here’s a look at how we got here.
Smollett said he was attacked
Smollett told authorities he was attacked in the early morning hours of January 29, 2019 by two men who were yelling racial and homophobic slurs. He said the two men put a noose around his neck and poured an unknown substance on him, according to Chicago police.
Celebrities, politicians and advocacy groups rallied behind the actor, with former President Donald Trump calling the alleged attack “horrible.” In his first public statement since the reported attack, Smollett thanked his fans for the support and attempted to dispel doubts questioning the integrity of his story, saying he had “been 100% factual and consistent on every level.”
Police began an investigation, taking Smollett’s sweater and rope and eventually obtaining video showing the actor entering a Lowes store after the alleged attack with what appeared to be a noose around his neck.
A day after the alleged attack, police said they found surveillance footage showing “potential persons of interest wanted for questioning.”
Two brothers confess to plot
About a month later, then-Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett allegedly paid two brothers $3,500 to stage the attack to take “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” saying the brothers confessed to the plot.
“As far as we can tell, the scratching and bruising that you saw on his face were most likely self-inflicted,” Johnson said in late February 2019.
Smollett was arrested on suspicion of filing a false report and released on bond. Prosecutors alleged Smollett texted a friend, one of the brothers, on January 25 and asked to talk. He laid out the plan and rehearsed it, prosecutors said, and gave the friend, Abimbola Osundairo, and his brother, Olabinjo, a $100 bill to buy clothing and rope for a noose and instructed the duo not to bring their phones to the attack. Phone records indicated Smollett talked to the brothers about an hour before the alleged attack and an hour after, authorities said, citing text messages and hours of surveillance video.
The Osundairo brothers told police Smollett first “attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter that relied on racial, homophobic and political language,” Johnson said in February 2019. A week before the alleged attack, a letter containing white powder and a drawing of a “stick figure hanging from a tree” was sent to the Chicago set of “Empire,” police said. Prosecutors said Smollett told Abimbola Osundairo he was disappointed in the “Empire” team’s reaction to the letter. The powder turned out to be aspirin.
After cooperating with police, the two brothers were released without being charged.
After his arrest, Smollett apologized to the show’s cast and crew for any embarrassment the allegations may have caused but maintained he was innocent.
Smollett is indicted on 16 felony counts
In March 2019, Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct by a Cook County, Illinois, grand jury. The indictment said that after the alleged attack, Smollett gave statements to both a Chicago police officer and to a detective but that details in those statements were different.
An attorney for Smollett at the time called the indictment a “prosecutorial overkill” and a “desperate attempt to make headlines,” adding the actor maintained his innocence.
On March 14, 2019, Smollett appeared in court and pleaded not guilty.
About a week before the charges were announced, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx removed herself from the case to address potential concerns of impartiality “based upon familiarity with potential witnesses in this case,” a spokeswoman from her office said.
All charges are dropped
In a dramatic reversal in the case, Chicago prosecutors dropped all charges against Smollett on March 26, 2019. Revealing little about the reason why, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office said the decision came after reviewing the case and after the actor agreed to forfeit his $10,000 bond. Parts of the case were sealed, one of Smollett’s attorneys said.
“After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett’s volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case,” the state’s attorney’s office said in a statement.
First Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Magats, the lead prosecutor, said Smollett had no prior felonies and was not a danger to the community. He added that thousands of other cases had similar results but that this one stood out in the media because of Smollett’s celebrity.
After a brief appearance in a courtroom, Smollett told reporters he was thankful to everyone who stood by him and that he had been “truthful and consistent on every single level since day one.”
His attorney, Patricia Brown, said the two brothers were Smollett’s trainers and that he only paid them for “nutrition and training.”
“This entire situation is a reminder that there should never be an attempt to prove a case in the court of public opinion,” two of the actor’s attorneys said in a statement. “Dismissal of charges against the victim in this case was the only just result.”
City officials condemned the dropped charges, with the former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel calling the case a “whitewash of justice” that sent a “clear message that if you’re in a position of influence and power, you’ll get treated one way. Other people will be treated another way.”
Johnson, the former police superintendent, said he stood by the investigators’ conclusions that Smollett staged the attack, saying the way Smollett could have cleared his name was “in a court of law so that everybody could see the evidence.”
In that same month, the city of Chicago said it wanted Smollett to cover the costs of the investigation into his alleged attack — more than $130,000 — and gave him a week to do so, kicking off a legal battle after the actor refused to pay.
Police release investigative reports
Following news of the dropped charges, Chicago police released a portion of their investigative reports in the case, which shed light on investigators’ interactions with the Osundairo brothers — including one instance in which one brother told detectives it “felt good” to tell the truth.
After the reports were made public, the police department was “then advised of a court order prohibiting such release,” then police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, the Chicago police union called for a federal investigation into Foxx, the state’s attorney for Cook County, to evaluate her involvement in the case following news reports about text messages between her and an attorney about “diverting the case from Chicago police department to a federal investigation,” Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham said in March 2019.
The following month, Foxx asked the Cook County inspector general to investigate her office’s handling of Smollett’s criminal case, saying that “ensuring that I and my office have the community’s trust and confidence is paramount to me.”
Judge approves a special prosecutor
In June 2019, a Cook County circuit judge approved the appointment of a special prosecutor to independently investigate the handling of Smollett’s case. The special prosecutor would have the authority to pursue charges for any crime committed during the investigation — including further prosecution of Smollett.
Also in June, Chicago police released body camera footage showing Smollett with a white rope tied in a noose around his neck on the night of the alleged attack. The footage was part of more than 70 hours of video and more than 400 pages of search warrants and some text messages that police released to the media.
A judge later ordered Google to turn over a year’s worth of Smollett’s personal electronic data — including his search history, photographs, files and geolocation data — to the special prosecutor.
Smollett’s publicist declined to comment on the search warrant at the time. Google did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment at the time.
Grand jury returns six-count indictment
A grand jury indicted Smollett in February 2020 for making false reports after special prosecutor Dan K. Webb, assigned to investigate the handling of the actor’s case, said his office “completed all of its investigative steps regarding Jussie Smollett, and has made the decision to further prosecute Mr. Smollett.”
The indictment charged Smollett with making four separate false reports to Chicago police officers, according to a statement from Webb’s office released at that time.
Several factors went into that determination, “including the extensive nature of Mr. Smollett’s false police reports, and the resources expended by the Chicago Police Department to investigate these false reports,” Webb said.
The special prosecutor’s office also said it had sufficient evidence to “determine that it disagrees” with how Foxx’s office handled the case. Webb said in a statement Foxx was unable to provide “documentary evidence” showing “other dispositions of similar cases prior to the Smollett case that would justify this disposition.” Foxx, who had admitted fault in her office’s handling of the case and said it could have been more transparent, dismissed Webb’s decision to indict Smollett weeks before the 2020 primary election as political. In November 2020, she won reelection for a second term.
Smollett’s attorney, Tina Glandian, said in a statement following the six-count indictment that the earlier charges were appropriately dismissed “because they were not supported by the evidence” and said the new attempt to prosecute the actor “is clearly all about politics not justice.”
Nearly two weeks later, Glandian entered a not guilty plea on her client’s behalf.
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