Flanked by family members, supporters, attorneys and bodyguards, former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Monday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Smollett’s testimony would seem essential to proving the defense theory of the case as the actor stands trial on a second indictment brought by a special grand jury following a year-long investigation of the attack and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office.
Jussie Smollett took the witness stand Monday, spending some six hours fielding questions from his attorney and parrying questions from Special Prosecutor Dan Webb about the hoax hate crime attack the former “Empire” star allegedly plotted as a publicity stunt.
Smollett was poised and at times indignant as Webb tried to cast the star’s refusal to hand over his cellphone and medical records to police after the attack as proof Smollett was afraid they’d uncover that he’d coordinated the attack with a pair of accomplices who would become star witnesses for the prosecution.
Smollett spent around four hours answering questions from his lead attorney before the start of cross-examination by Webb, who led off asking the actor whether he wanted police to conduct a thorough investigation of the crime, despite refusing to turn over medical and phone records.
“I wanted the police to solve a crime that had been committed against me,” Smollett said.
Questioned by his attorney, Nene Uche, Smollett said he saw light, pale skin around the eyes of his attacker, who was masked, and assumed the person was white because the person used a racial slur and mentioned “MAGA country.”
Smollett said he never told police the men wore red hats, and an apparently leaked comment from Chicago Police that he had convinced him that police didn’t believe him.
The actor said “not one iota of information has changed” regarding his explanation of the attack, which also involved a second individual, and he said it cost him his livelihood.
Smollett’s testimony is key to defusing key bits of circumstantial evidence that prosecutors have used to buttress a case that leans largely on testimony from brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who testified last week that Smollett masterminded the attack because he was disappointed with the “Empire” studio’s response to a hate mail letter sent to the actor in 2019.
Smollett said he was far from unhappy with his career in the winter of 2019. His star was on the rise, his salary had nearly tripled and his music career was taking off by the fourth season of the show. Smollett said “Empire” creator Lee Daniels described the actor’s role as groundbreaking.
“You have to be for gay Black men what Phylicia Rashad was for Black women on ‘The Cosby Show,'” Smollett told jurors.
But that year, Smollett also became friends with Abimbola Osundairo, an extra on “Empire,” and received a threatening letter. Prosecutors allege Smollett hired Osundairo and his brother to fake a hate crime attack as a publicity stunt.
But Monday, former “Empire” show-runner Brett Mahoney testified that after receiving the letter, Smollett declined added security on the set and at home, and the actor also did not want the media to know about the hate mail.
“It was Jussie’s choice, that he didn’t want that letter publicized,” Mahoney said.
Smollett’s time on the stand marked his first extensive public remarks on the case against him since the former “Empire” actor read a statement as he left the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in March 2019. That followed a hearing at which the Cook County state’s attorney dropped all charges just weeks after he was indicted.
Some three years ago, Smollett proclaimed his innocence to a throng of reporters, saying, “I have been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one. … I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I’d been accused of.”
Smollett’s testimony would seem essential to proving the defense theory of the case as the actor stands trial on a second indictment brought by a special grand jury after a yearlong investigation of the attack and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office.
Smollett’s lawyers have cast the actor as an unwitting victim, betrayed by his onetime friend-turned-star prosecution witness Abimbola Osundairo and Osundairo’s older brother, Olabinjo.
The brothers testified that Smollett hired them to beat him up in view of a surveillance camera, even scripting homophobic and racist slurs he wanted them to yell, with the intention of putting the video on social media as a publicity stunt.
It was on Smollett to flesh out the defense’s explanations for several pieces of circumstantial evidence as well. Smollett testified that they often smoked marijuana and drove around Chicago, composing songs, a likely explanation for why GPS data and surveillance footage showed Smollett circling his neighborhood near the attack scene days before it took place.
After a “rehearsal” a few days before the attack, Smollett gave Abimbola Osundairo, who had worked as his personal trainer, a $3,500 check, which the brothers said was payment for participating in the hoax. Smollett said the payment was for a workout and diet plan so he could drop 30 pounds before going shirtless in a music video and to get back in the good graces of show creator Daniels.
“Lee Daniels told me I was fat, and I had to leave 30 pounds before I came back on set,” Smollett said.
Smollett is also expected to testify that Abimbola Osundairo requested a seven-figure payoff — either $1 million or $2 million, according to Smollett’s lawyers — to publicly admit Smollett was not involved in the hoax or to refuse to testify against the actor.
Smollett’s lawyers have also said that Abimbola Osundairo suggested Smollett hire him as a bodyguard after the actor received a threatening letter after learning the “Empire” studio wanted him to take on security.
Former federal prosecutor Dan Webb, who was appointed special prosecutor in the Jussie Smollett case, walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Monday.
Smollett has told his story before, if not under oath. Not long before he was indicted, the actor gave a lengthy interview to ABC reporter Robin Roberts that aired on “Good Morning America.” Smollett recalled struggling with two men as he walked home from a 24-hour sandwich shop.
At times tearful and often indignant, Smollett then said he was “pissed off” by the large contingent who doubted his story in the weeks since he’d come forward — a group his lawyers have implied included Chicago police investigators working to find his attackers.
Smollett will have to explain a text he sent to Abimbola Osundairo shortly after learning from police that the brothers had been identified as his attackers, expressing support to a friend who had apparently beaten him up, put a noose over his head and doused him with bleach.
“I know 1000%. You and your brother did nothing wrong… I am making this statement so everyone else knows … Please hit me when they let you go. I am behind you fully,” the text said.
Under questioning from Smollett’s lawyers, who have tried to cast the Osundairos as homophobes who were using their connection to the openly gay star to advance their acting careers, Abimbola Osundairo admitted going to a gay bathhouse on several occasions, though he claimed he didn’t know the establishment catered to gay men.
Testimony has spanned five days so far, an exceptionally long trial for a defendant facing only low-level felonies. If he is found guilty, the actor would be eligible for a sentence of probation or one to three years behind bars.