Former Empire star Jussie Smollett will spend five months in an Illinois jail after he was sentenced Thursday for staging a hoax hate crime against himself, an event that set off a national media firestorm and hand-wringing from politicians and celebrities about the prevalence of racism and homophobia in America.
After a nearly seven-hour hearing, Judge James Linn sentenced the actor and singer to 150 days in jail and 30 months of probation, and ordered him to pay restitution of just over $120,000 and a $25,000 criminal fine. He could have been sentenced to as much as three years in prison. Immediately after the sentence was read, Smollett repeatedly declared that he was innocent and that he was not suicidal.
“I did not do this. If anything happens to me when I go in there, I did not do it myself,” Smollett said during an emotional outburst. He left the courtroom with his fist raised, continuing to declare his innocence. “I could have said that I was guilty a long time ago.”
Before announcing his sentence, Linn called Smollett a charlatan who pretended to be a victim of a hate crime because he craved attention. He called the hoax “premeditated to the extreme.” The evidence against Smollett was “overwhelming,” Linn said, and his actions were “shameful.” He admonished Smollett for putting a noose around his own neck when his alleged attackers failed to. Smollett has become a butt of jokes, and his name a synonym for lying.
“You’ve been lying and lying and lying about this case,” Linn said.
Linn acknowledged the testimony of defense witnesses who described Smollett as a gentle person and a community advocate, dedicated to social justice. But Smollett has a “dark side,” Linn said, that includes extreme arrogance and narcissism.
“You wanted to make yourself more famous, and for a while it worked,” Linn said. “You actually threw a national pity party for yourself.”
Smollett embarrassed his friends, put his family through an emotional ringer, and is toxic in his workplace, Linn said. The future of Smollett’s acting career is uncertain.
“You’ve destroyed your life as you knew it,” Linn told Smollett, who did not speak before the sentencing.
Prior to the judge’s decision, special prosecutor Dan Webb argued that Smollett should serve a “fair and proper sentence” for his actions, including some time behind bars. The underlying crime was serious because it diverted police resources and marginalized real hate-crime victims, he said. Smollett lied to a jury under oath in “an effort to obstruct justice in this courtroom,” and he has never accepted any responsibility or apologized, Webb said.
In a letter, Chicago police leaders called for Smollett to pay more than $130,000 in restitution, arguing that the financial cost of their investigation was “significant” and that the stress and fatigue it caused officers was “immense.”
Smollett’s defense lawyer, Nenye Uche, called for probation, arguing that the crimes his client was convicted of — filing false police reports — weren’t violent, and he doesn’t have a felony record. Smollett’s reputation and career already has been harmed, Uche said, and he’s already paid a fine and done community service. He called the charges against Smollett “a misdemeanor dressed up as a felony.” He asked Linn for mercy and said Smollett has suffered enough.
“Why are we jumping up and down acting like this is a murder case. It’s not,” Uche said, arguing that if Smollett were jailed, he could catch Covid-19 and die. “Sending Mr. Smollett to jail is almost like a death sentence. Yes, it is, because anything medically can go wrong.”
Defense mitigation witnesses, including the former Empire music director, described Smollett as a “loving and wonderful young man” who donated time and money to nonprofits. He received letters of support from several people and groups, including the Black Lives Matter organization, actor Samuel L. Jackson, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
Smollett’s older brother said he still believes Smollett is innocent and called him a “beacon of hope, charity, and philanthropy” who poses no threat. Sending his brother to jail would not restore public trust in the criminal-justice system, he said. Smollett’s 92-year-old grandmother, Molly Smollett, also asked Judge Linn not to send her grandson to jail. “The Jussie I know and love does not match up with the media’s portrayal of him,” she said.
At the beginning of Thursday’s hearing, Smollett’s team called for a new trial, arguing that Smollett was convicted in the press before the hearing, and that there were a “series of legal errors” in court. They argued that Smollett is a victim of double jeopardy, that there were flaws with the jury-selection process, and that prosecutors threatened and pressured witnesses and attempted during the trial to shift the burden of proof to the defense. They also argued that the case never should have been brought after Cook County’s state attorney’s office initially dropped felony charges against Smollett in March 2019. A previous judge didn’t have jurisdiction to appoint a special prosecutor, the defense argued.
Deputy special prosecutor Sean Wieber called the request for a new trial “meritless” and accused the defense of “finger-pointing” and “scapegoating,” blaming everyone from Judge James Linn to Chicago police to the jury for their failure. “He certainly doesn’t deserve a new trial,” Wieber said of Smollett.
Linn denied the request for a new trial. “I do believe at the end of the day that Mr. Smollett received a fair trial,” he said.
Thursday’s hearing lasted nearly seven hours. It was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. in Chicago, but Smollett arrived late, his vehicle pulling up outside the courtroom a couple of minutes after the hearing was to begin. Dressed in a blue suit with his hair cropped close to his head, Smollett walked into the courtroom arm-in-arm with his grandmother, while they were mobbed by reporters and photographers.
Smollett was found guilty of five counts of disorderly conduct after a two-week trial in Chicago in December. The low-level charges were each tied to making a false report to police.
It was one of the most bizarre national criminal cases in recent years. Smollett, who is black and openly gay, claimed that two attackers — at least one of them white — jumped him out of the blue around 2 a.m. on January 29, 2019, used racist and homophobic slurs, doused him with bleach, hung a noose around his neck, and yelled, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to then-president Donald Trump’s slogan. Smollett was returning to his Chicago apartment from a local Subway restaurant when he was jumped.
The story went viral, garnering intense coverage from national media outlets. To many on the left, it was just more proof of how hateful and bigoted Trump’s America had become. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and New Jersey senator Cory Booker were among the high-profile politicians who issued statements supporting Smollett. Trump called the attack “horrible.”
Chicago police spent more than 3,000 man-hours investigating the alleged crime, but by mid February investigators determined the attack was in fact a hoax. Smollett, they determined, had conspired with two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, black extras on Empire, to stage the attack, in a perverse kind of street theater. The brothers testified against Smollett, saying that Smollett had asked them to carry out the attack, which he planned.
Investigators learned that Smollett had sent a text message to Abimbola Osundairo about a week before the attack asking him to meet “on the low.” It was during that meeting that Smollett hatched his plan, prosecutors said. Investigators unearthed security footage of Smollett driving past the attack site with the Osundairo brothers several times just two days before the attack. Prosecutors called it a dry run. Investigators also learned that Smollett had written one of the brothers a $3,500 check, an apparent payment for the performance, and that he had been in regular contact with Abimbola Osundairo in the hours before the attack.
Prosecutors said there was no way the Osundairo brothers could have expected to encounter Smollett outside his apartment at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday in subzero temperatures if the attack hadn’t been planned. Smollett declined to turn over his cellphone, his medical records, or a DNA sample to Chicago police investigators. He said he was concerned about his privacy.
“He developed a secret plan that would make it appear that there was actually a hate crime that occurred against him by supporters of Donald Trump,” special prosecutor Webb told the jury during last year’s trial.
Smollett, who testified in his own defense, remains defiant and continues to maintain his innocence. During his testimony, he acknowledged that he drove past the scene of the crime with the brothers two days before the attack. They were just driving around, smoking weed, he said. He acknowledged he’d paid Abimbola Osundairo $3,500 that same day, but it was payment for a nutrition and exercise plan so he could look good for an upcoming music video shoot. And he acknowledged he’d called and messaged Abimbola Osundairo several times in the hours before the attack, but not to coordinate a fake attack. His flight from New York to Chicago had been delayed, so he needed to reschedule their workout that night, he said.
Webb accused Smollett of lying to the jury for “hours and hours and hours,” and spinning a “completely ridiculous story.”
Webb’s team put on a strong case in December, methodically walking jurors through the evidence. By contrast, Smollett’s defense team often seemed flailing and unfocused, grasping at straws to explain the evidence against the actor, and in some cases offering seemingly contradictory theories. For example, they simultaneously suggested the Osundairo brothers were motivated to attack Smollett by raging homophobia, and that Abimbola Osundairo was also Smollett’s former lover. They seemed to both acknowledge the guilt of the Osundairo brothers, but also continued to suggest that one of the attackers could be white.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that Smollett’s motive for the fake attack stemmed from a hateful letter he received at the Empire studio about a week earlier. Smollett, they argued, didn’t believe the studio leaders were taking the letter seriously enough, and staging the attack would prove a point. They did not address a previously alleged motive that Smollett staged the attack to raise his public profile and to get a raise. Former Chicago police superintendent Eddie T. Johnson previously alleged that Smollett faked the hate crime to “promote his career.”