Judge begins questioning prospective jurors for actor Jussie Smollett’s trial

·4 min read

CHICAGO — After almost three years of roller-coaster controversy, the trial of former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett began Monday morning with the questioning of potential jurors about their exposure to news about the case.

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

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?

Because of COVID-19-related capacity limits, journalists were relegated to the hallway outside for the first part of jury selection, during which Linn addressed the full panel of about 50 potential jurors.

Two pool reporters eventually were allowed to be present in the room.

In his opening remarks to the jury pool, Linn said he expected a jury to be empaneled and opening statements to begin Monday. He said he may let evidence continue until 7 p.m. before recessing for the day.

As of noon, Linn had questioned 16 potential jurors, asking specifically whether they’ve 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.

None of the jurors questioned so far had been selected or dismissed.

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 Donald 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.

On Monday, after COVID-19 shutdowns have been eased and questions involving his legal representations have been resolved, the evidence against Smollett will finally get a public airing in court.

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.

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