CHICAGO (AP) — Jussie Smollett took the witness stand Monday at his trial where he is facing charges accusing him of staging a racist, anti-gay attack on himself and lying to Chicago police about it.
The former actor from the TV show “Empire” was testifying Monday as the trial entered its second week and neared a finish. Two brothers testified last week that Smollett, who is gay and Black, orchestrated the hoax to get publicity. They said he paid them to fake the January 2019 attack in downtown Chicago.
Smollett’s attorneys argued the attack was real and that the brothers made up the story about a hoax then asked Smollett for $1 million each to not testify against him at trial.
After two brothers spent hours telling a jury how Jussie Smollett paid them to carry out a fake racist and anti-gay attack on him in downtown Chicago, the big question as the former “Empire” actor’s trial resumed Monday is whether he will tell his side of the story.
The prosecution rested Thursday and the defense began calling witnesses. On Monday, testimony began with the defense calling a security guard who was working in the area where the alleged attack occurred in January 2019 and the executive producer of “Empire.”
Attorneys rarely announce whether their clients will take the stand before they actually call them to testify, and Smollett’s attorneys have not made their plans public.
The reasons why Smollett might want to testify begin with just how bizarre the case is. During the trial that started Nov. 29, what emerged was the story of a television star who cast two brothers as his attackers, gave them dialogue to recite, and paid for the rope he told them to fashion into a noose and loop around his neck.
As strange as that sounds, it is the only narrative that has come to the jury from the siblings, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo. And some legal experts say the only chance Smollett has of beating charges that he lied to the police is by telling jurors his version of what happened on Jan. 29, 2019.
Defense attorney Shay Allen has suggested the brothers, who are Black, were motivated to accuse Smollett of staging the hoax because they disliked the performer — who is gay and Black — and then saw an opportunity to make money. They have suggested that after the brothers were questioned by police about the alleged attack, they asked Smollett for $1 million each to not testify against him at trial.
The defense also has argued that Chicago police rushed to judgement when they brought charges against Smollett, and suggested a third person may have been involved in the attack.
On the witness stand Monday, security guard Anthony Moore said that around the time of the alleged assault, he saw a person on the ground at the end of the block and two men running, one of whom was white. Moore said he told police what he saw, but when he was later questioned by the special prosecutor he felt pressured to change his story. Moore testified that he signed a statement that said the person was “possibly” a Black man, but that he felt “pressure and threatened to put something out there that I didn’t see.”
Under cross-examination, Moore said he only saw the man for one to two seconds. He also said he thought the men were fooling around, and that the two men were laughing as they ran by him.
Prosecutors say Smollett staged the attack because he was unhappy with the “Empire” studio’s response to hate mail he received. The letter including a drawing of a stick figure hanging by a noose, with a gun pointed at it, and the word “MAGA” — an apparent reference to then-President Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The Osundairo brothers testified that Smollett told them to yell “this is MAGA country” during the fake assault.
Brett Mahoney, who produced “Empire” in Chicago, testified that Smollett called him after the hate mail was sent to the set.
“We were obviously all very upset about the letter,” Mahoney said, adding that law enforcement was contacted and the letter turned over to authorities. He said Smollett agreed to added on-set security, but didn’t want anyone following him home because he felt it was too intrusive.
Smollett, 39, is charged with six counts of felony disorderly conduct for making what prosecutors say was a false police report about the alleged attack — one count for each time he gave a report — to three different officers. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said if Smollett is convicted he likely would be placed on probation and ordered to perform community service.
Sign up for the WTAJ Newsletter for the latest local news, weather, and community events that matter to you.