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CHICAGO — It was a jaw-dropping moment in an already dramatic trial: An attorney for Jussie Smollett said in court that, just moments before, the judge presiding over the case had lunged at her while attorneys huddled in a sidebar.
“Judge, you physically moved towards me,” Tamara Walker told Cook County Judge James Linn during the trial Thursday.
Linn vigorously denied it, and the courtroom devolved into something close to chaos. Spectators murmured, attorneys began an animated argument for a mistrial, and Linn denied the accusation strenuously. He had simply been extremely surprised at what attorneys requested during the sidebar, he said.
The story spread like wildfire through the Leighton Criminal Court Building, where Linn has presided over a felony courtroom for years.
On Friday, Walker told The Chicago Tribune she believed Linn’s physical response was spontaneous and not intended to intimidate — perhaps it was even involuntary — but it was shocking all the same.
“I was in disbelief,” she told the Tribune. “… I did not expect that type of reaction (to) me doing my job.”
The incident was touched off during Walker’s cross-examination of Olabinjo Osundairo, one of the state’s key witnesses, who testified Smollett recruited him and his brother to stage a hoax hate crime attack on him one night in January 2019.
Attacking the brothers’ credibility is central to the defense case. They are expected to argue, in part, that the brothers may have actually attacked Smollett, perhaps motivated by homophobia.
To bolster that argument, Walker showed jurors texts from Olabinjo Osundairo that called someone “fruit” and “gaylord,” as well as an exchange between him and his brother in which he referred to someone who might have been gay as “sicko.”
During the course of the questioning Linn said the matters being raised were “very collateral,” at which point Walker and her team repeatedly requested a sidebar.
Attorneys and the judge huddled in a corner — without a court reporter present. The defense asked Linn for a mistrial based on his characterization of the cross-examination as “collateral.”
“As soon as I made the motion, Judge Linn reacted with shock and seemed to become upset, and at that moment had a reaction to physically move toward me with the upper portion of his body,” Walker told the Tribune on Friday.
After the sidebar, Linn directed jurors to leave the courtroom, and Walker again asked for a mistrial — this time in open court — because of the collateral comment “as well as your physical actions toward me in the sidebar.”
Linn strenuously denied making threatening moves, saying he was just “quite startled” that the defense would ask for a mistrial on those grounds.
“What collateral meant in that context (was) we’re talking about things he said to other people,” he said from the bench. “There’s nothing for a mistrial here … frankly I’m stunned you’d consider a mistrial.”
In addition, Smollett attorney Heather Widell said in court Linn was making “snarling” faces when granting objections from prosecutors.
Linn denied making faces, denied lunging and denied the mistrial. After a recess, the trial moved on.
Walker told the Tribune that, contrary to some media reports, she was not crying as she made her argument.
“My voice cracked, but I did not cry about the incident,” she said. “I was in shock and disbelief, and my voice broke. I could not believe I was relating what occurred.”
Walker said she viewed the encounter as part of a long pattern of disrespect toward female attorneys — particularly Black female attorneys — in courtrooms across the country.
“Throughout my 21 years of practice I have had experiences that my white male counterparts have not, including being mistaken for a court clerk, being mistaken for a defendant or member of the general public, being told to sit down when I came up to the clerk to check in for clients,” she said. “My experiences are not isolated; a number of female or Black women practitioners have experienced the same thing throughout our careers.”
Smollett’s trial is expected to resume Monday morning.