The twists, turns, and oddities of the legal saga surrounding Jussie Smollett’s claim in 2019 that he was the target of a racist and homophobic attack in Chicago have culminated in an actual trial, which enters its first full day of testimony Tuesday.
Initial charges brought in February 2019 that accused the former ‘Empire’ actor of faking the assault were soon after tossed. But in February 2020, after a special prosecutor looked into the case, a new six-count indictment was filed.
Here’s a look at the charges Cook County jurors will hear testimony about:
What are the charges?
The 39-year-old is charged under Illinois’ disorderly conduct statute, which encompasses a wide range of offenses, from making prank 911 calls to placing harassing calls as a debt collector.
He faces six counts of disorderly conduct under a subsection of the law that prohibits false reports to police. Some states don’t categorize false police reports as disorderly conduct.
The charges are listed as class 4 felonies, which are among the least serious felonies in Illinois. But convictions can still carry potential prison time of up to three years.
If jurors convict Smollett, his lack of criminal history and the fact that no one was seriously hurt make actual time behind bars unlikely. It’s more likely that a judge would sentence him to probation and perhaps order him to perform community service.
“I’d be shocked if he spent one day in jail,” said Andrew Weisberg, a Chicago-based criminal attorney and a former Cook County prosecutor.
How unique is it for such charges to be brought?
The Smollett case is certainly unique in how it involves a star actor and in its sensational claims and counterclaims — first by Smollett, who is Black and gay, that he was the subject of an attack and then by police that he had made it all up.
While it is among the biggest disorderly conduct cases in Illinois history, it's not the only such case to have made a splash in the news.
A Canadian, Robert Spearing, was charged with disorderly conduct in 2011 after Chicago police said he lied about being beaten and robbed of tickets to an Orpah Winfrey show. He concocted the story, even cutting his own forehead with a rock, to conceal from his wife that he’d never had tickets. He pleaded guilty and did no time in prison.
Disorderly conduct charges for filing a false police report aren’t uncommon and are sometimes tied to insurance fraud. Last week, a man in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton was charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly lying to police that he had been robbed in a parking garage at gunpoint.
Weisberg says those who fib in initial reports to police are frequently quick to recant and often aren’t charged if they take it back immediately. After police accused him of lying, Smollett doubled down and insisted it was all true.
Smollett's case stands out in that it got to trial at all, Weisberg added. In many cases, those accused of lying to police seek a plea deal or plead guilty without a deal.
Why six counts against Smollett for the same incident?
Each count of disorderly conduct represents an instance during January 29, 2019, and then on February 14, 2019, in which Smollett allegedly lied to police.
Count 1 accuses him of telling responding Chicago Police Officer Muhammed Baig at around 2:45 a.m. — some 45 minutes after the purported attack — that he’d been the victim of a hate crime. He said two attackers put a rope around his neck. Count 2 refers to Smollett telling the same officer he was a victim of a battery, describing attackers beating and pouring bleach on him.
Counts 3 and 4 are when Smollett made the same claims but to a different officer, Kimberly Murray, later that morning — at just before 6 a.m.
Count 5 accuses Smollett of again telling Murray at around 7:15 p.m. that he was the victim of a battery. Count 6 refers to Smollett reporting on February 14, 2019, to detective Robert Graves that he’d been a victim of an aggravated battery.
All three officers are expected to testify.
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