Empire star Jussie Smollett found guilty of faking hate crime in misguided attempt to boost career

Jussie Smollett.
Jussie Smollett. Photo credit: Chicago Police/supplied

Actor Jussie Smollett, one-time star of the TV drama Empire, was found guilty on Thursday of staging a hate crime against himself in what prosecutors said was a bid to gain sympathy and boost his career.

Prosecutors said Smollett, who is Black and gay, lied to police when he told them that he was accosted on a dark Chicago street by two masked strangers in January 2019.

The actor faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison for each count when he is sentenced, although he could be given probation.

The Cook County Circuit Court jury, which deliberated for nine hours, found Smollett, 39, guilty of five of the six felony disorderly conduct counts he faced, one for each time he was accused of lying to police.

Describing Smollett's account of what happened as "ridiculous", special prosecutor Dan Webb told reporters following the verdict that "Mr Smollett would not have lost this case as he did today unless the jury found that he lied to them".

Smollett's lead defense attorney, Nenye Uche, said that his client was "an innocent man" who was confident he would see the guilty verdicts overturned on appeal.

"I don't for one second believe that justice was done today," Uche said outside court, adding that the defense was facing an uphill battle because "Jussie was already tried and convicted in the media."

Smollett left the courthouse without speaking to reporters and surrounded by an entourage.

Smollett claimed the attackers threw a noose around his neck and poured chemicals on him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs and expressions of support for former President Donald Trump.

Police arrested the actor a month later, saying that he paid two brothers US$3500 to stage the attack in an effort to raise his show-business profile. He eventually pleaded not guilty to six counts of felony disorderly conduct.

The two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, testified that Smollett paid them to participate in a hoax and instructed them how to attack him. During the trial, the actor took the stand and disputed their accounts.

An attorney for the Osundairo brothers, Gloria Rodriguez, told reporters after the verdict that for Smollett the verdict meant it was "time to cut the act, time to come clean".

Legal experts said Smollett would probably not spend significant time behind bars.

"While it's certainly possible that he could receive a sentence involving prison time, the much more likely scenario is that he would receive probation with some amount of community service," former Cook County Prosecutor Eryk Wachnik told Reuters.

Cook County Judge James Linn did not set a date for sentencing, but scheduled a presentencing hearing for January 27.

Smollett's acting career declined after the incident. He lost his role as a singer-songwriter in the final season of Empire, a Fox television hip-hop drama that ended a five-year run in 2020.

His case took an unexpected turn in spring 2019 when the Cook County state's attorney's office dropped a 16-count indictment against him in exchange for Smollett forfeiting his US$10,000 bond without admitting wrongdoing.

The dismissal drew criticism from then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city's police superintendent, who called the reversal a miscarriage of justice.

In 2019, Webb recommended charging Smollett again and a grand jury returned an indictment.