Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett took the stand in his criminal trial Monday in a high-stakes attempt to rebut charges that he staged a fake hate crime and lied to Chicago Police about it in January 2019.
Last week, brothers “Bola” and “Ola” Osundairo testified that Smollett, who is Black and gay, directed and paid them to carry out a sham anti-gay and racist attack in order to garner sympathetic media coverage. Their testimony, as well as that of five Chicago police investigators, formed the core of the prosecution’s case against Smollett.
But under oath Monday, Smollett offered testimony over five hours in which he denied orchestrating the attack and suggested the brothers — whom he knew from the “Empire” set — may have had other motivations at play.
The day finished with the actor still on the stand and court scheduled to resume Tuesday morning with special prosecutor Dan Webb picking up his cross-examination.
Smollett on Monday said Bola Osundairo, who he called “Bon,” helped him get drugs, including cocaine. He also said a sexual relationship began to forge between the two at a particular Chicago bath house. One night the two were out, and Smollett testified they got a private room and “did more drugs and like, made out.”
On a separate occasion, Smollett told jurors he and Bola Osundairo snuck away from his brother after the three were at a female strip club together. Smollett testified they again got a private room and “made out a little bit, masturbated together.”
In testimony last week, Bola Osundairo denied they had a sexual relationship and said he “didn’t know” there was even any sexual tension.
Smollett testified further Monday he wasn’t friendly at all with Ola Osundairo.
“He kind of creeped me out,” Smollett told jurors. “Every time we were around him, he didn’t speak to me. Every time we needed to leave, he made it seem like we needed to sneak off.”
After a “hate letter” was sent to Smollett in the mail at the “Empire” studio in Chicago on January 22, 2019 — seven days before the alleged attack — Smollett said Bola Osundairo approached him about becoming his personal security guard, something the actor told the jury Osundairo had repeatedly asked him.
Following the letter, Bola Osundairo began asking him more about the need for security, Smollett said. The actor described being annoyed at the idea of always having a security detail around him.
“Around lunch time I would smoke my blunt, drive around the neighborhood of the studios. I don’t want to be in someone’s car,” Smollett said.
Smollett told the jury that while driving around with Bola Osundairo, there was never any discussion of planning a staged hate attack.
“Did you talk to him about some hoax?” defense attorney Nenye Uche asked.
“No,” Smollett shot back.
“Did you give him the check as payment for some silly hoax?” Uche then asked.
“Never,” Smollett said.
In February 2019, Smollett rejected some of what has been reported, including that he told police his alleged attackers were wearing MAGA hats.
Smollett testified Monday his relationship with Chicago police began to deteriorate after police mentioned the MAGA hats, favored by supporters of President Donald Trump.
The actor said no when Uche asked whether he ever told police the alleged attackers were wearing the hats.
Smollett added that one of the reasons he did not give a police detective his cell phone when she asked for it was because he didn’t think police believed his story.
Smollett appeared to briefly get emotional while describing the incident to jurors, prompting his attorney to ask whether he was all right.
Smollett, 39, has pleaded not guilty to six counts of disorderly conduct, a charge for which a conviction is punishable by up to three years in prison. His defense attorneys have said he was a real victim and have suggested during the trial that homophobia may have been a motive in the attack.
The decision to testify in one’s own defense is a high-risk move because the prosecution is allowed to closely cross-examine the defendant.
In recent weeks, two defendants in other high-profile homicide trials have taken the stand. Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, testified in his own defense, and a jury ultimately acquitted him of all charges. In Georgia, a jury convicted Travis McMichael of murder in Ahmaud Arbery’s death after he took the stand.
Smollett’s case involves far less serious charges, and is untied to civilians using lethal weapons.
How the trial has gone so far
The prosecution called seven witnesses over the course of three days of testimony last week.
First, five police investigators testified that Smollett told them two men had attacked him in the street, yelled racist, anti-gay and pro-Trump remarks, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him.
Bola and Ola Osundairo testified that Smollett had actually directed them and paid them to stage a fake hate crime in an attempt to get sympathetic media coverage and further his acting career.
“Who was in charge of this thing?” Webb asked.
“Jussie was,” Bola Osundairo told the jury.
Smollett’s defense, meanwhile, has argued he was actually attacked in a hate crime. They called three witnesses last week, including Smollett’s former music manager and publicist.
On Monday morning, an “Empire” executive producer testified that the show had received a threatening letter in the mail a week before the January 2019 incident. The producer, Brett Mahoney, said Smollett did not want the letter publicized.
Overall, Smollett’s defense has relied on inflammatory questioning of witnesses and outbursts that have led to several heated exchanges with Judge James Linn.
For example, in cross-examination of Ola Osundairo, after Linn directed the defense to move on from a particular line of questioning, defense attorney Tamara Walker asked for a mistrial, sobbed in court and then said the judge had “lunged” at her during a sidebar conversation.
The judge denied the accusation and denied the motion for a mistrial, saying he was stunned by the request.
“Ms. Walker, there were objections that had to be sustained and I was trying to get back on point,” the judge said. “Just because you think you were allowed to go one way, we’re all just doing our jobs.”
The trial is the culmination of a case that began when Smollett told police he had been attacked. Celebrities, politicians and advocacy groups rallied behind the actor, and police poured significant resources into solving the case and locating the two men.
But after interviewing the Osundairo brothers and finding other evidence, authorities instead determined that Smollett paid them $3,500 to stage the hate crime against him so he could get publicity and a career boost.
Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct by a Cook County, Illinois, grand jury in March 2019, but Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office decided to drop those charges weeks later. The decision angered the mayor and police and sparked questions as to whether Smollett had received preferential treatment.
A special prosecutor then took over the case, and a grand jury indicted Smollett on new charges in February 2020.
The incident effectively put a halt to Smollett’s acting career. His character was written off “Empire,” which ended in 2020, and though he has since directed and produced a film, he has not appeared on screen again.