CHICAGO — A verdict was reached in the Jussie Smollett criminal trial Thursday, nearly three years after he told police two Trump-loving bigots beat him up, tied a noose around his neck and doused him in bleach on a blistering night in January 2019.
Jurors deliberated for over nine hours before reaching the verdict.
They’d heard six days of testimony from 13 witnesses and in the absence of smoking gun evidence, the trial in Chicago criminal court came down to whose story was more believable: Smollett’s, or Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo’s.
The defense vehemently maintained Smollett was the victim of a real hate crime and called the brothers “sophisticated liars and criminals,” who later offered to recant their story and “tell the truth” in exchange for $2 million.
“He’s dumb enough to go into Obama’s city and pretend there’s Trump supporters running around with MAGA hats? Give me a break,” defense attorney Nenye Uche told jurors in his closing arguments.
“The brothers were like wolves disguised as sheep in the hen house.”
Prosecutors, however, said Smollett exploited tense race relations for his own gain and paid the Osundairos $3,500 to stage the attack so he could get attention.
“It’s clearly a violation of the law to go to the police and report to police a fake crime and tell police it’s a real crime,” special prosecutor Dan Webb told the jury.
“To outright denigrate something as serious, as heinous, as a real hate crime, to denigrate it and then make sure it involved words and symbols that have such horrible historical significance in our country was just plain wrong to do it and he did.”
The two brothers, who’d known the former “Empire” actor for about a year and a half prior to the alleged hoax, both delivered hours-long testimonies as the prosecution’s star witnesses. Abimbola, 28, told jurors that he and Smollett met at a club in the fall of 2017 and soon became so close, he considered the actor to be a “brother.”
So when Smollett texted him on January 25, 2019 asking him for some “help on the low,” he agreed to meet up with the actor, who brought up a piece of hate mail he received that showed a stick figure hanging and the words “You will die black f-g.”
“He talked about how the studio was not taking the mail seriously, the hate mail he’d received earlier,” Abimbola testified.
“I was confused, I looked puzzled and then he explained that he wanted me to fake beat him up.”
Abimbola, who is now an amateur boxer, claimed Smollett told him specific lines he wanted the brothers to deliver — “‘Empire’, f—-t, n—-r, MAGA” — and then gave blow-by-blow instructions.
“He wanted me to punch him but he wanted me to pull the punch so I didn’t hurt him and then he wanted me to tussle him and throw him to the ground and give him a bruise,” Abimbola testified.
“Then he wanted it to look like he was fighting back, so I was supposed to give him a chance to fight back and then eventually throw him to the ground and my brother would tie the noose around his neck and pour bleach on him.”
During a “dry run” two days later, Abimbola testified Smollett showed the brothers a location for the alleged attack that was in direct view of surveillance cameras because he “wanted to use the camera footage for media.”
The brothers admitted they found the request bizarre, but agreed to partake because Smollett was famous, and could help them with their own budding acting careers down the line.
“I mentioned to Ola that I did feel indebted to Jussie and that he’s helped me out and he could actually further our acting career and Ola agreed,” Abimbola said.
From the onset, the defense’s case largely centered on attacking the Osundairos’ credibility and establishing reasonable doubt by presenting a series of witnesses that chipped away at the brothers’ story.
Smollett’s former publicist Pamela Sharp testified the actor loathed media attention and Anthony Moore, a security guard patrolling near the scene of the alleged attack, told jurors he’s adamant he saw a white man running away from the area and prosecutors pressured him to change his story.
But following a three-day break from the trial, and bombshell testimony from both Osundairos, Smollett unexpectedly took the stand Monday morning and testified that everything the brothers said was a “bold faced lie.”
“There was no hoax,” Smollett told jurors.
“What happened to me, happened.”
He explained that on the night he met Abimbola, the two did cocaine together and later made out and touched each other inside a private room at Steamworks, a gay bathhouse in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood.
The actor testified the two later masturbated together at the same bathhouse and Abimbola frequently purchased cocaine and marijuana for him, and spoke about being his security guard.
“Security was mentioned a lot… it just came in passing like ‘yo man you should let me be your security,’” Smollett told jurors.
“It became a running joke, he would act like we were secret service when we were together.”
The defense pointed out that security guards for Smollett could reap in as much as $5,000 per month but the only thing the actor wanted to hire Abimbola for was fitness related.
He testified the $3,500 he paid Abimbola was for personal training services and a meal plan when he needed to lose weight ahead of a music video shoot and when he texted him asking for his “help on the low”, it was about herbal steroids that are illegal in the US — nothing more.
Over and over again, the former “Mighty Ducks” actor denied instructing the brothers to stage a hate crime and while under cross-examination Tuesday, grew testy and combative when special prosecutor Dan Webb grilled him about inconsistencies in his story.
When Smollett originally spoke to cops, he said one of the attackers was white — an assumption he made primarily based on the vitriolic statements that were said — but later told cops the assailant was “pale skinned” because it was the “responsible” thing to do.
Prosecutors said the alleged hoax was originally scheduled for the evening of January 28, 2019 but was pushed back to 2 a.m. on January 29 when a flight Smollett was taking from New York back to Chicago was delayed for several hours.
In the lead up to the alleged ruse, Smollett acquiesced that he’d sent four messages to Abimbola giving him status updates on his delayed flight but claimed it was because he and the trainer had plans to work out that night, while prosecutors said the texts were proof that they were coordinating with each other.
The hate crime Smollett claimed he suffered sparked international outrage, and then disgust, when police said he made the whole thing up.
The actor was originally charged with staging a hate crime in February 2019 but in a stunning reversal, Chicago prosecutors dropped all charges against him after he agreed to forfeit a $10,000 bond and showed proof that he’d completed two days of community service.
In the backdrop of Smollett’s failed performance as a hate crime victim, scandal soon engulfed Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who was widely criticized for the move and was later found to have made a series of unethical blunders in her handling of the case.
A former state appellate judge, Sheila O’Brien, managed to convince a judge that a special prosecutor was needed to investigate the office’s handling of the case and in a scathing ruling that summer, Judge Michael Toomin agreed, and declared Foxx’s case was void from start to finish.
Toomin later appointed Webb as a special prosecutor, who brought renewed charges against Smollett in February 2020.
The actor faces up to three years in jail for the crimes.