Jussie Smollett trial: Why the former Empire actor is in court over an assault claim

Jussie Smollett's trial begins this week. Credit: AP

Jussie Smollett’s trial kicks off this week in Chicago in a case that is likely to centre on the credibility of two brothers.

The former Empire actor contends he was the victim of a racist and homophobic assault in downtown Chicago in January 2019.

The siblings, however, who worked with him on the TV show, say he paid them $3,500 (£2,630) to pose as his attackers.

What does Smollett say happened?

Smollett told police he was walking home early on January 29 last year when two masked men approached him, made racist and homophobic insults, beat him and looped a noose around his neck before fleeing.

He said his assailants, at least one of whom he said was white, told him he was in "Maga country" - a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again".

Smollett is still adamant that the attack was real and was not a publicity hoax or attempt at earning a raise.

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What’s the case against Smollett?

Smollett is accused of lying to police about the alleged attack and has been charged with felony disorderly conduct.

It is a class 4 felony, which means it is a crime that carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.

However, experts have said it is more likely that if Smollett is convicted he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.

Jussie Smollett appearing in court on February 24, 2020, where he plead not guilty to charges that accuse him of staging the attack. Credit: AP

Whether Smollett, who is black and gay, testifies remains unclear.

But the siblings, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, will take the witness stand where they are expected to repeat what they have told police officers and prosecutors — that they carried out the attack at Smollett’s behest.

How will Smollett respond to the claims?

Smollett’s attorneys have not spelled out how they will confront that evidence and the lead attorney, Nenye Uche, declined to comment ahead of this week’s proceedings.

But there are clues as to how they might put up a defence.

Buried in nearly 500 pages of Chicago Police Department reports is a statement from a woman who lived in the area who says she saw a white man with “reddish brown hair” who appeared to be waiting for someone that night.

She told a detective that when the man turned away from her, she “could see hanging out from underneath his jacket what appeared to be a rope.”

Her comments could back up Smollett’s contention that his attackers draped a makeshift noose around his neck.

If she testifies that the man was white, it would support Smollett’s statements — widely ridiculed because the brothers, who come from Nigeria, are black — that he saw pale or white skin around the eyes of one of his masked attackers.

One of the defence attorneys, Tina Glandian, suggested during a March 2019 appearance on NBC’s “Today” show that one of the brothers could have used white makeup around his eyes to make Smollett believe he was white.

To address scepticism on the jury, Glandian could ask the brothers about a video she talked about on the program that she said shows one of them in whiteface reciting a monologue by the Joker character from a movie.

What about the money?

The $3,500 cheque could be key.

While the brothers say that was their fee to carry out the fake attack, Smollett has offered a different and much more innocent explanation - that he wrote the check to pay one of them to work as his personal trainer.

“I would assume the defence is going to zero in on that,” said Joe Lopez, a prominent defence attorney not involved with the case.

“If they texted messages regarding training sessions, cheques he (Smollett) wrote them for training, photographs, the defence would use all of that.”

How long will the trial last?

The trial is expected to take around one week.