On the stand in his own defense, the ex-Empire star called the assault by men hurling punches and homophobic and racial slurs and shouting “MAGA country” to be “something out of Looney Tune adventures.”
Asked directly by special prosecutor Daniel Webb in cross-examination if he wanted the police to treat his attack as a “hate crime,” Smollett replied that he “wanted police to solve a crime that had happened to me.”
Holding to his story under one-time Iran-Contra lawyer Webb’s sometimes intense questioning, Smollett said it was “fully false, 100 percent false” that he planned or paid anyone to stage an attack on him.
Facing half a dozen felony charges spiraling out of the alleged hate crime that soon afterward was characterized by Chicago police, politicians and prosecutors as probably a PR stunt, Smollett spoke on Day 5 of his trial to offer his version of what really went down in the cold early hours nearly three years ago.
If found guilty, the actor who played Jamal Lyon on Empire for five seasons could be sentenced to as much as three years behind bars. An edict of actual incarceration from Cook County Judge James Linn seems unlikely, but isn’t impossible in a trial that has been full of drama and characters straight out of the Fox primetime soap created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong.
Under questioning by his own attorney Nenye Uche, Smollett not only laid out the sequence of events of the attack of January 29, 2019, but also the aftermath. “I’ve lost my livelihood,” the performer admitted of being cut from Empire and his music career as his story of that chilly night unraveled under the scrutiny of the cops and the courts.
One theory floated by law enforcement and Webb is that Smollett paid acquaintances Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo $3,500 to stage an attack because the actor didn’t feel an actual threatening letter sent to Smollett via Empire received enough attention.
That balloon was effectively shot down by Empire EP Brett Mahoney, who told the courtroom that on-set security was increased after the correspondence was brought to the production’s attention. The showrunner for the final seasons of Empire and a longtime vocal supporter of Smollett’s, Mahoney continued in his testimony by claiming the actor declined extra personal security and a driver because “he didn’t want a lot of attention” around the letter, according to the media pool at the trial.
Confronted with apparent contradictions in his story and frustrations felt by the police as their probe intensified, Smollett also claimed on the stand that he decided not hand over his phone and the information in it to police in part because CNN anchor and pal Don Lemon had texted him with a warning that the CPD didn’t believe he was really attacked. That phone, and why Smollett didn’t immediately give the device to police when they requested it, became a significant and fairly inconclusive chunk of Webb’s cross examination later Monday.
The actor also told Uche earlier in the day that he still “didn’t believe it was true” that the Osundairo brothers were his actual assailants, despite what they and the police say.
Smollett was equally blunt in answering why his manager — not the actor himself who — who called the cops after the alleged attack. “One, I am a Black man in America — I do not trust police,” Smollett said. “I am also a well-known figure, and I’m openly gay. … The moment I got beat I become a [homophobic slur] who got his ass whooped.”
In many ways the trial is the judicial action many believe Smollett was denied, for better or worse. Just weeks after the supposed attack and the harsh turn of events, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office essentially dismissed the original case against the actor after he forfeited a $10,000 bail. As official outrage grew and more questions emerged about what had actually happened to Smollett on the street in downtown Chicago, Webb was brought on board as a special prosecutor in August 2019.
In February 2020, as Smollett failed to have new probes tossed out, Webb indicted the actor on the current six felonies, which include filing a false police report. The trial that finally kicked off last month was delayed for over a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Court has wrapped for the day. However, with Webb’s cross-examination of Smollett not completed and closing arguments yet to be conducted, the trial is expected to run at least one more long day before jury deliberations begin.
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