CHICAGO - Jussie Smollett "is a real victim" of a "real crime," his attorney said in opening statements at the ex-"Empire" actor’s trial Monday, rejecting prosecutors’ allegation that he staged a homophobic and racist attack in Chicago after the television studio where he worked didn’t take hate mail he had received seriously.
Defense attorney Nenye Uche said two brothers attacked Smollett in January 2019 because they didn’t like him, and that a $3,500 check the actor paid the men was for training so he could prepare for an upcoming music video, not as payment for staging a hate crime, as prosecutors allege. Uche also suggested a third attacker was involved and told jurors there is not a "shred " of physical and forensic evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.
"Jussie Smollett is a real victim," Uche said.
The 39-year-old actor arrived at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse around 9 a.m. alongside his mother, Janet, sister Jurnee and brothers Jocqui and Jake. Arm and arm with his mother, Smollett stepped into Judge James Linn’s courtroom and took a seat at the defense table alongside the team of attorneys that will defend him against a half-dozen felony counts for allegedly making false statements to police.
The jury was sworn in Monday in the Chicago courtroom: 12 jurors and two alternates. Judge James Linn, who said he expects the trial to take about one week, was asking potential jurors if they have been the victim of a hate crime, if they have watched "Empire" or TMZ, a program and website about celebrities, or if they belong to any civil rights or pro-police organizations. Cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom and the proceedings are not being livestreamed, unlike in other recent high-profile trials.
The veteran judge had said he expected he would be able to seat a jury from the pool of 50 prospective jurors despite the international publicity surrounding a case that has been the subject of countless news stories and late-night comedy punchlines.
Opening statements were set to begin around 4:45 p.m. Judge Linn said jurors would stay as late as 7 p.m. during the trial.
Smollett made headlines in 2019 when he claimed a pair of white men assaulted him as he walked home on a frigid night from a sandwich shop near his Streeterville apartment.
Smollett, who is Black and gay, said the two men approached him in the early morning hours of Jan. 29, 2019 in the 300 block of East North Lower Water Street and attacked him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs.
The actor claimed the men had also shouted "This is MAGA country," a reference to then-President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan, poured a bleach-like liquid on him and hung a thin rope noose around his neck.
Chicago police investigated and said Smollett staged the attack to advance his acting career. They said Smollett hired Abel and Ola Osundairo, two brothers who had worked as extras on "Empire", and paid them $3,500 to carry out the attack.
The brothers, who are expected to be key witnesses against Smollett, were later released.
The controversy significantly tarnished Smollett’s career when he was criminally charged and led to his character being written off the hit Fox television show "Empire," which was filmed in Chicago.
Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct and filing a false report.
Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx's office suddenly dropped the charges a month later after reaching an agreement with the actor to perform community service and turn over his bond to the city of Chicago.
Smollett was not required to admit to any wrongdoing as part of the agreement.
Foxx had announced she would be recusing herself from the case a day before the actor’s arrest, later explaining she had decided to assign the case to her top deputy because she had talked about the case with a relative of Smollett’s during the time the actor was considered a victim.
U.S. Attorney Dan Webb was brought in as a special prosecutor in the case and was tasked with reinvestigating the allegations against Smollett, as well as possible wrongdoing by Foxx and her staff.
His investigation found no illegal conduct by Foxx's office, but said she abused prosecutorial discretion when she dropped the charges. Webb’s report was ordered sealed and has yet to be released to the public.
Smollett was indicted again one year later on six counts of disorderly conduct — all low-level felony charges — related to making false statements to police about the alleged attack.
The charges against Smollett carry a maximum sentence of three years, with a lighter sentence, even probation, the likely outcome if he is convicted, given Smollett’s lack of a serious criminal background.
Smollett has maintained his innocence.
The allegations captured international headlines and fed concerns over reports of a surge in hate crimes across the country following Trump’s election. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker tweeted Smollett’s claims amounted to an "attempted modern day lynching," and Trump called the allegations "horrible" when he was asked about them at a news conference.
But rumors quickly emerged that investigators were skeptical Smollett was telling the truth.
Smollett addressed his doubters days later in a statement saying, "I am working with authorities and have been 100% factual and consistent on every level," and gave a tearful interview on "Good Morning America" to defend himself.
After Smollett’s arrest, then-Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson publicly called the attack a hoax crafted by Smollett himself. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel blasted the actor for besmirching Chicago’s reputation with a bogus story.
At Smollett’s bond hearing, prosecutors alleged he had staged the attack because he was unhappy with how television studio for "Empire" had handled disclosure of a purported racist letter mailed to the actor that contained a white powder substance.
Officials said the powder was determined to be from a crushed-up, over-the-counter pain reliever and that Smollett had sent the letter to himself because he was unhappy with his salary on the show.
The trial will not feature testimony from Foxx, Emanuel or former top cop Johnson, all of whom had been subpoenaed by Smollett’s defense team, only to have Judge James Linn rule their testimony would not be required.
Linn, who will oversee the trial, rejected a motion to allow cameras in the courtroom to cover the proceedings and said the proceeding won’t be streamed live, which is typical of jury trials in the county.
Due to social distancing measure undertaken during the pandemic at the courthouse, attendance will also be significantly limited in the courtroom.
The trial is expected to last four to five days.
The Sun-Times Media Wire and Associated Press contributed to this report.