Jussie Smollett had ‘a secret plan’ for hate crime on himself, prosecutor says as trial begins

CHICAGO — After years of controversy and roller-coaster twists and turns, the trial of Jussie Smollett began Monday with prosecutors alleging the actor faked a hate crime that grabbed the nation’s attention.

Smollett “developed a secret plan that would make it appear that there was actually a hate crime that actually occurred against him by supporters of Donald Trump,” special prosecutor Dan Webb told jurors.

It was not just a crime, Webb said, but a despicable act “to denigrate something as serious as a hate crime and then just report one occurred when it didn’t occur.”

Chicago police “reacted swiftly” to Smollett’s allegation, Webb said, putting the “full force” of the department on the case. At one point they had 26 officers and detectives working it, tallying over 3,000 man hours, according to Webb.

Webb began his opening statement Monday evening after about six hours of jury selection, during which 15 people — 12 jurors and three alternates — were chosen to hear Smollett’s case.

Those selected for the panel included a woman who says she’s watched “Empire” before and likes to drag race in her spare time, a man who emigrated from Iraq 12 years ago and works for a credit union, and a woman from suburban Bartlett who’s a counselor at a behavioral hospital.

Another juror, a man from the Lincoln Park neighborhood who appears to be in his 30s, works in the health care information field. Also selected was a man originally from Canada who manages a store and man who appears to be in his 60s and works in sales. Another person selected, a woman in her late 60s, said her husband, brother and father are all retired police officers.

Judge James Linn has said he may let evidence continue until 7 p.m. before recessing for the day.

The case brings with it immense baggage, including what became a political crisis of sorts for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and the appointment of special prosecutor Dan Webb to handle the case. But jurors will be tasked with determining a far narrower question: Did Smollett in fact orchestrate a phony hate crime on himself, then lie to police about being a victim?

In his first round of questioning, Linn had asked specifically whether jury candidates had heard about the case in the news, seen “Empire,” watched the celebrity gossip site TMZ, or belong to any civil rights or anti-police groups.

About five people raised their hands indicating they’d never heard of the Smollett allegations. Two or three said they’d watched Empire and a few said they’d seen TMZ before.

So far only one prospective juror, a white woman, has said she might not be able to be fair, explaining that she’d done research on the case early on.

“When I found out it was a hate crime, my daughter is gay, so I did some research on that,” the woman said. “She works in the downtown area so I was very concerned for her safety and what was going on.”

When Linn pressed her on her ability to set that aside and render a fair verdict, the woman said she was still unsure. He then moved on to a different line of questioning.

The woman was later dismissed.

Smollett arrived at the courtroom shortly before 9:30 a.m., wearing a dark suit and a dark mask, with two supporters flanking him and holding both of his arms as he walked.

The trial is slated to last at least a week. Unlike during previous high-profile trials, the proceedings will not be livestreamed either online or to an “overflow” room.

By now the contours of the story are familiar: Smollett claimed he was walking home from a Subway restaurant one night in January 2019 when two men wearing ski masks attacked him, yelling racial and homophobic slurs and hanging a noose around his neck. One of his attackers appeared to be white, Smollett said. And in the midst of the assault, one assailant yelled “This is MAGA country,” a reference to then-President Trump’s slogan.

His manager called the police, and officers responded to his apartment to find Smollett with the rope still around his neck. “I just wanted y’all to see it,” he told them.

The story grabbed international headlines — particularly after two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, told police that the attack had been faked. Smollett had persuaded them to stage the assault in hopes of catching the attention of his “Empire” bosses, the brothers said.

Smollett went from victim to suspect, and ultimately was charged with giving a false report to the police.

But in a stunning move, Cook County prosecutors quietly dropped those charges shortly after Smollett’s formal indictment, causing mass confusion and an outcry that ultimately led to a special prosecutor’s appointment. Webb, and his team brought a new indictment against Smollett in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

In the absence of objective smoking-gun evidence, the case will largely hinge on the credibility of the Osundairo brothers. They are the prosecution’s key witnesses, and are expected to tell jurors in great detail that Smollett recruited them and instructed them to orchestrate a phony attack.

By contrast, the defense is expected to argue that the brothers, working with at least one other person, attacked Smollett outright and then framed him to avoid being criminally charged themselves.