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The long, troubling story of ex-Empire actor Jussie Smollett’s alleged hate crime hoax

Lily Wakefield November 29, 2021
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Flanked by attorneys and supporters, actor Jussie Smollett walks out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse after pleading not guilty to a new indictment on February 24, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.

Flanked by attorneys and supporters, actor Jussie Smollett walks out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on 24 February, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty/ Nuccio DiNuzzo)

Former Empire actor Jussie Smollett will face trial on Monday (29 November) for allegedly staging a racist, homophobic hate crime against himself in Chicago.

The case, full of twists and turns, has fascinated the world, and could soon reach its conclusion nearly three years after it began.

Here is what you need to know before Smollett walks into court.

Jussie Smollett is accused of sending himself a death threat ahead of the ‘attack’

Before Jussie Smollett ever claimed he had been the victim of a racist, homophobic attack, the actor reported receiving a letter at the studio where Empire was filming.

Smollett told Good Morning America that the note, received on 22 January, 2019, “had a stick figure hanging from a tree with a gun pointing towards it with the words that said ‘Smollett, Jussie you will die’.”

The letter, written in “poison pen” style with letters cut out of magazines, had the return address listed simply as “MAGA”. It also contained a white powder, which was identified as Tylenol.

Police later said they believed that Smollett sent himself the letter.

The Empire actor claims he was left with a rope around his neck

Around a week later, in the early hours of 29 January, Jussie Smollett told police he was the victim of a violent homophobic, racist hate crime.

He said he was walking home from a Subway restaurant when he was approached by two men in ski masks, who shouted homophobic, racist slurs.

Smollett said his attackers, described as white, punched him in the face, poured a chemical substance on him and wrapped a rope around his neck. The actor, who had been outspoken in his criticism of the Trump administration, also claimed they told him: “This is MAGA country, [n-word].”

He said he believed the attack was linked to the threatening letter he’d received the week before.

Jussie Smollett allegedly paid brothers thousands to stage hate crime

Despite the actor’s claims about his “attack”, evidence soon surfaced that suggested it could have been orchestrated.

Surveillance video captured ahead of the incident showed two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who had worked on Empire as extras, purchasing a ski masks, gloves and a red hat.

They were arrested, but told investigators that they had in fact been paid $3,500 by Smollett to stage the attack.

The brothers were released, with authorities citing “new evidence”. The Chicago Police Department said in a statement in February, 2019: “We can confirm that the information received from the individuals questioned by police earlier in the Empire case has in fact shifted the trajectory of the investigation.”

On 20 February, 2019, Smollett was charged by a grand jury with a class four felony for filing a false police report, which carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.

Following Smollett’s arrest, a visibility angry superintendent Eddie T Johnson told a press conference: “Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.

“I am left hanging my head asking: Why? Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How can an individual who’s been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in the city in the face with these false claims?”

Johnson insisted that Smollett had staged the attack because he was “dissatisfied with his salary” on Empire. The actor was later written out of the show.

Smollett was bailed out, but by March had been indicted on 16 felony counts of “false report of offense”.

He consistently professed his innocence, promising that he had been “100 per cent factual and consistent on every level”.

Weeks later, charges against him were dropped.

Prosecutors made an abrupt deal and dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett

In late March, 2019, prosecutors in Chicago abruptly dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett, and agreed to an unusual deal.

In exchange for the dropped charges, Smollett was required to forfeit his $10,000 bail, and complete just 16 hours of community service.

Despite the arrangement, Smollett was not required to admit to having done anything wrong, and continued to insist that the attack took place as he initially described.

In August, 2019, a special prosecutor was assigned to investigate the dropping of the charges against Smollett.

In February, 2020, Smollett was indicted yet again with six felony charges over the alleged hoax. He petitioned for the case to be dismissed, claiming the judge had overstepped his authority and misinterpreted the law, but was rejected. 

The actor and singer is now heading back to court

Jussie Smollett, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, will head back to court on Monday (29 November).

Despite his legal team’s attempts to have the case dismissed, his attorney Nenye Uche has said Smollett wants “nothing more than to go to a jury and clear his name”.

If found guilty, Smollett could face up to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine for each charge, and a judge would have to decide whether the sentences would run concurrently or consecutively.

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