CHICAGO — In a nearly empty Leighton Criminal Courthouse, eight hours after the case was called, opening statements were delivered Monday evening in the criminal trial of former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett.
Smollett, now 39, is charged with six counts of making false statements to police in connection with a hate crime that he reported to police on a frigid night in January 2019.
After about eight hours of proceedings, 12 jurors and two alternates were selected, the majority of whom appeared to be white. The trial is expected to last through the week.
“He faked the hate crime, then he falsely reported the fake hate crime to the Chicago Police Department as being a real crime,” attorney Dan Webb, the special prosecutor appointed to the case in 2019, said during his opening statement.
“Under Illinois law, it is a crime to knowingly provide a false report of a crime to a police officer, and that’s exactly what he did,” Webb added.
Nenye Uche, one of Smollett’s attorneys, said the case was built largely on assumptions.
“This rush to judgment has destroyed Jussie’s life, destroyed his career and has turned him into a pariah,” Uche said.
The case gripped the city when it was first thrust into public view. Smollett, a Black and gay actor on the Fox series “Empire,” told Chicago police that he was attacked by two masked men in the middle of a frigid night after he left a Subway restaurant.
Smollett said his attackers used homophobic and racial slurs while putting a noose around his neck, with one of the assailants telling him, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to former President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
Smollett himself became a suspect soon after, and he was charged with making a false report. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said she “recused” herself from the case to “address questions of impartiality.” Shortly after he was charged, “Empire” producers said Smollett’s character would be written out of the show.
However, the charges against Smollett were quickly dropped with little explanation in March 2019. The city later filed a federal lawsuit against Smollett, seeking to recoup the money that was spent investigating Smollett’s initial attack claim.
Eventually, Cook County Judge Michael Toomin appointed Webb — the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois — as special prosecutor, tasked with determining if there was wrongdoing by the state’s attorney’s office in dropping the charges, and deciding if Smollett should face criminal charges.
A grand jury returned a six-count indictment against Smollett in February 2020.