Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor accused by Chicago police of staging a fake hate crime for personal profit, pleaded not guilty Thursday at his arraignment on a 16-count indictment of lying to police. He has denied the charges.
One of Smollett’s lawyers, Tina Glandian, entered the plea on Smollett’s behalf.
Prior to the arraignment, Judge Steven G. Watkins was assigned to oversee Smollett’s case. Watkins made a small change to the terms of Smollett’s bond, saying he will allow Smollett to travel Los Angeles and New York to meet with attorneys without first formally seeking court approval.
Smollett huddled with his attorneys at the courthouse for more than 30 minutes after the hearing. He and his legal team left the courthouse without speaking to reporters.
Prosecutors, led by Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier, also did not comment.
“Empire” star Terrence Howard, who has publicly expressed support for Smollett, planned to attend Thursday’s hearing. He ended up missing it, because he got stuck at the airport while waiting to pick up his wife, whose fight was delayed, according to Smollett spokeswoman Anne Kavanagh.
The actor’s legal team said Tuesday that they wanted cameras in the courtroom so the public could see the evidence. Celebrity defense attorney Mark Geragos, who joined Smollett’s Chicago-based legal team in late February, argued that the worldwide media coverage has robbed Smollett of the presumption of innocence. He said he was not surprised by the indictment.
“What is unexpected, however, is the prosecutorial overkill in charging 16 separate counts against Jussie,” Geragos said in a statement last week.
“This redundant and vindictive indictment is nothing more than a desperate attempt to make headlines in order to distract from the internal investigation launched to investigate the outrageous leaking of false information by the Chicago Police Department and the shameless and illegal invasion of Jussie’s privacy in tampering with his medical records.”
Smollett, 36, told Chicago police that he was attacked in the middle of the night on Jan. 29, claiming that two masked men shouted homophobic and racist abuse at him, beat his face, threw bleach on him, hung a noose around his neck and yelled, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s campaign slogan.
Local shock, a nationwide outcry, and an urgent Chicago police investigation ensued.
While messages of support for Smollett from his famous friends, from presidential candidates and total strangers poured in over social media, police busied themselves watching hours of surveillance video and searching for two murky figures Smollett said were the attackers.
They argued with Smollett about access to his cellphone, they served search warrants, and they eventually arrested two brothers they suspected were the two men on the surveillance video.
For nearly 48 hours – the limit police could hold them – the bodybuilder brothers Ola Osundairo, 27, and Abel Osundairo, 25, were interrogated until, police said, they explained: Smollett, whom they knew through “Empire” and working out together, had paid them to help him stage a hoax attack.
On Feb. 20, after a flurry of conflicting leaks from the Chicago Police Department about the status of the investigation (Smollett is a victim, he’s not a victim, it is a hoax, it is not a hoax), Smollett was charged by police with one Class 4 felony count of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report about the alleged attack.
He turned himself in early the next day, was arrested and briefly jailed, before being released on $100,000 bond.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett paid the Osundairo brothers $3,500 to stage an attack on him in order to raise his profile and his TV salary.
Johnson angrily assailed Smollett, saying he smeared Chicago. He told reporters that the actor staged the attack to look like a hate crime in order to “take advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”
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