CHICAGO (AP) — Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was convicted Thursday on charges he staged an anti-gay, racist attack on himself nearly three years ago and then lied to Chicago police about it.
In the courtroom as the verdict was read, Smollett stood and faced the jury, showing no visible reaction.
The jury found the 39-year-old guilty on five counts of disorderly conduct — one count for each separate time he was charged with lying to police in the days immediately after the alleged attack. He was acquitted on a sixth count, of lying to a detective in mid-February, weeks after Smollett said he was attacked.
The charge is a class 4 felony that carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said if convicted, Smollett would likely be placed on probation and ordered to perform community service.
The damage to his personal and professional life may be more severe. Smollett lost his role on the TV program “Empire” after prosecutors said the alleged attack was a hoax, and he told jurors earlier this week that “I’ve lost my livelihood.”
The jury deliberated for just over nine hours Wednesday and Thursday after a roughly one-week trial in which two brothers testified that Smollett recruited them to fake the attack near his home in downtown Chicago in January 2019. They said Smollett orchestrated the hoax, telling them to put a noose around his neck and rough him up in view of a surveillance camera, and that he said he wanted video of the hoax made public via social media.
Smollett testified that he was the victim of a real hate crime, telling jurors “there was no hoax.” He called the brothers “liars” and said the $3,500 check he wrote them was for meal and workout plans. His attorneys argued that the brothers attacked the actor — who is gay and Black — because they are homophobic and didn’t like “who he was.” They also alleged the brothers made up the story about the attack being staged to get money from Smollett, and that they said they wouldn’t testify against him if Smollett paid them each $1 million.
In closing arguments on Wednesday, a prosecutor told jurors there was “overwhelming evidence” that Smollett staged the attack, then lied to police about it for publicity. His defense attorney said prosecutors' case was based on lies.
Special prosecutor Dan Webb told the jury that Smollett caused Chicago police to spend enormous resources investigating what they believe was a fake crime.
“Besides being against the law, it is just plain wrong to outright denigrate something as serious as a real hate crime and then make sure it involved words and symbols that have such historical significance in our country,” Webb said.
He also accused Smollett of lying to jurors, saying surveillance video from before the alleged attack and that night contradicts key moments of Smollett’s testimony.
Defense attorney Nenye Uche called the brothers “sophisticated liars" who may have been motivated to attack Smollett because of homophobia or because they wanted to be hired to work as his security.
“These guys want to make money,” he said.
Webb questioned why Smollett didn’t turn over his cellphone to police or give them a DNA sample or access to his medical records to help with the investigation. Smollett testified he doesn’t trust Chicago police, and that he was concerned about his privacy.
“If he was a true victim of a crime he would not be withholding evidence,” Webb said.
Uche called it “nonsense” for Chicago police to ask Smollett for his DNA when he was still considered the victim of a crime. He noted Smollett later provided DNA to the FBI for a separate investigation into hate mail he had received at the “Empire” studio shortly before the alleged attack.
“He wasn’t hiding anything,” Uche said.
The disorderly conduct charge is a class 4 felony that carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have Smollett would likely be placed on probation and ordered to perform community service.