CHICAGO — Jussie Smollett, the actor accused of filing a false police report in 2019, took the stand Monday in his criminal trial, saying he was physically assaulted by a person in a ski mask and denying that the incident was staged in any way.
“There was no hoax,” he testified.
Smollett said that he was the victim of a hate crime in his downtown Chicago neighborhood. The incident happened about 2 a.m., he told jurors, after he had picked up food from a Subway. He was on the phone with his manager when someone yelled, “Empire!” which he ignored, he said, because was the name of the TV show in which he was an actor and people say it to him all the time.
But then he heard a second shout, Smollett said. This time someone again yelled, “Empire!” but also used derogatory words against Black people and the gay community.
“They yelled f—– Empire n—–,” Smollett said.
Smollett said he turned around and responded with his own expletive but was punched in his left eye.
Smollett testified he fought back: “I would think that I landed a punch,” but he wasn’t quite sure. He said the person who attacked him was much larger than he, testifying that he is 5 feet 11 inches tall.
Smollett also testified he saw a second assailant.
The circumstances surrounding the alleged attack, which prosecutors say was a hoax orchestrated by Smollett to gain public attention, are at the heart of the trial, which opened a week ago.
Smollett said the person who assaulted him also yelled this is “MAGA country,” and again called him a racial epithet.
The attack lasted between 15 and 20 seconds, Smollett said.
While he was being questioned by the defense, he testified multiple times that he never took part in any hoax to fake the alleged attack against him.
In additional testimony Tuesday, Smollett detailed his budding friendship with one of two brothers who are implicated in an attack his lawyers say he suffered at their hands.
Smollett, 39, dressed in a blue suit and a red tie, discussed his middle-class upbringing and how he broke into the entertainment industry before he landed a starring role in the hit television series “Empire,” which had its premiere in 2015 on Fox.
Smollett, who spoke as family members and friends packed a front row of the courtroom in Chicago, was then asked by his defense team about how he met Abimbola Osundairo, a background actor who worked on the “Empire” set.
Smollett said that he met Osundairo, also known as Bon, at a club and that they struck up a friendship that included doing drugs, going to strip clubs and engaging in sexual activity.
“We went alone this time and got a private room and did drugs and masturbated together,” Smollett testified about one outing. He added that he had met Osundairo’s older brother, Olabinjo, but didn’t trust him and that Abimbola Osundairo began working as his trainer.
While legal experts say defendants are typically advised not to take the stand because they could provide inconsistent testimony, Smollett’s version of events may be necessary for the jury to understand the case’s confounding and twisting narrative. Defendants in recent weeks have also taken the stand in other high-profile trials, including Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin, one of the men who pursued and killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes in California.
Smollett is being tried on six counts of felony disorderly conduct in Illinois after he was arrested and accused of filing a false report to Chicago police about a month after the alleged attack on Jan. 29, 2019.
In the report, Smollett, who is Black and openly gay, said he was walking home from getting food in the early morning when he was assaulted by two masked men who hurled racist and homophobic slurs. Smollett also said his attackers poured what he believed was bleach over him and put a noose around his neck.
He told police that he was on the phone with his manager during the incident, and the manager said he heard the attackers say, “This is MAGA country,” in reference to former President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, Make America Great Again. Smollett refused to hand over his cellphone to police, but he later gave investigators a PDF with a limited list of his calls.
Last week, prosecutors closed out their case by calling Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo to the stand. The brothers testified that Smollett hired them to stage an attack as a ploy for public attention and paid them with a $3,500 check.
Abimbola Osundairo, an aspiring actor, told the jury that he agreed to help Smollett in the hoax because he felt “indebted” to his “close friend.”
The defense countered with theories that the brothers may have been taking advantage of Smollett for financial gain and were trying to scare him into believing he needed security, which they denied.
Smollett’s former music manager, Brandon Moore, also testified last week that when he was on the phone with Smollett, he “sounded panicked” and “out of breath.”
Smollett initially faced as many as 16 felony counts involving filing a false police report before prosecutors dropped the charges in March 2019, a move blasted by then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and then-Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson. A special prosecutor, however, secured another indictment last year.
In the aftermath of the incident, Smollett maintained his innocence and said he was upset that critics had cast doubt over his claims that he was the victim of a hate crime.
If he is convicted, Smollett could face up to three years in prison, although legal experts told The Associated Press that the prospect is unlikely given his lack of a criminal record and because no one was seriously hurt in the alleged attack. As an alternative to prison time, the judge could sentence Smollett to probation and community service.
Molly Roecker reported from Chicago and Erik Ortiz and Antonio Planas from New York.