It all started after midnight on January 29, the night Empire star Jussie Smollett says he was attacked on a Chicago street. The 36-year-old told police that he was beaten outside of the Loews Hotel by two white men in ski masks who yelled racist and homophobic slurs, and championed “MAGA country,” as they tied a rope around his neck and poured bleach on him.
Due to the serious nature of the allegations, the Chicago police immediately began investigating the incident as a possible hate crime. They even discovered a threatening letter that was reportedly sent to the actor prior to the alleged attack. It contained anti-gay rhetoric and a mysterious white powder.
As news broke of the shocking incident, many celebrities and politicians rallied behind the openly gay actor, both in the press and on social media. Presidential candidate Kamala Harris even called the incident a “modern-day lynching,” while Smollett appeared on a television interview on ABC with Robin Roberts, where he reiterated that what he told police was unequivocally true.
It wasn’t until early February when investigators uncovered a blurry video of two men walking near the supposed crime scene that the case took a very unexpected turn, one that would eventually cast suspicion on the actor himself. And as of Wednesday, February 20, a Cook County, Illinois, grand jury found probable cause that Smollett staged the attack. The young actor was arrested, charged with felony disorderly conduct and released on bond shortly before being written off the hit show Empire.
Since then, Smollett has also been slapped with 16 more felony counts after allegedly lying to police about being the victim of a hate crime.
Now that he’s gone from being victim to being charged, we’ve answered some of the toughest questions about what it means to face these multiple felony counts, why the D.A. ultimately charged Smollett, and what could possibly happen next in this bizarre case.
Has Smollett been arrested?
Smollett turned himself in to police at 5:30 a.m. on February 21. He was later released on bond.
As of March 8, Smollett was charged with 16 more felony counts of disorderly conduct for filing a police report. The grand jury specifically returned two separate sets of charges related to the actor’s allegations that his supposed attackers called him racist and homophobic slurs, used a noose and poured a chemical on him. His testimony to police immediately after the incident, as well as his second interview with police, have both contributed to the most recent grand jury decision.
What evidence do the police have against Smollett?
During a press conference just after 10 a.m. on February 21, Eddie Johnson, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, confirmed that Smollett orchestrated and paid for the staged attack.
First, he said, Smollett attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter to himself. When that didn’t work, Smollett then paid $3,500 to two brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, to stage the attack because, according to Johnson, Smollett “was dissatisfied with his salary” on the hit TV show Empire.
The two brothers Smollett hired, men he knew from working on Empire, were wearing gloves and, said Johnson, punched the actor “a little bit.” Phone records between Smollett and the two brothers show communication both before and after the staged attack.
Johnson also confirmed that the police have evidence of money payment in the form of the actual check Smollett paid the brothers.
How did the Chicago police ultimately solve this case?
Commander of the Chicago Police Department, Edward Wodnicki, outlined the timeline of the investigation during the February 21 press conference.
He said the investigation officially began at 2 a.m. on the morning of January 29, when Smollett first reported that he was victim of a hate crime. The actor was initially interviewed at Northwestern Hospital.
“Jessie was not hurt,” said Wodnicki, other than a few scratches on his face and some bruising. It appeared that the scratches may have been self-inflicted.
The police interviewed more than 100 people in the area after the supposed attack.
“We quickly found two persons of interest on video that we believed were the likely offenders in this case,” said Wodnicki. About 35 different police cameras and 20 private-sector cameras were used to track the suspects. Wodnicki also confirmed that the police executed more than 50 search warrants and subpoenas looking into phone and social-media records of the parties involved in this investigation.
The two brothers seen in the video were eventually identified through a rideshare they used to flee the scene. On Friday, February 15, after 47 hours of the brothers being in custody, and hours of interrogation, they were no longer considered suspects in the case. They became witnesses to the crime.
Based on the evidence the brothers provided and that the police uncovered (including the payment from Smollett), the State Attorney’s Office approved charges against the actor this week. Johnson said Smollett orchestrated the attack to further his own career, and believes he ultimately wanted the staged attack to be captured on camera.
What happens next?
Because Smollett is charged with making a false police report, a felony disorderly conduct charge that could bring jail time and/or monetary fines, he was booked by police and had a bond hearing on February 21.
During the hearing, Smollett faced a judge to officially make his plea. The judge granted bond of which Smollett was required to pay $100,00, based on the defendant not being a danger to the community or a flight risk. He was asked to surrender his passport.
How is Smollett responding after being arrested?
The Empire actor has maintained his innocence from the beginning of the investigation.
On the night of February 20, his lawyers released a statement saying, “Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked.”
They also added: “Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
What changed since Smollett first talked to police?
Everything changed after the two men seen in the grainy video footage near the alleged crime scene were arrested and provided their statements about being hired by Smollett to stage the attack. In a security video from January 28, the two brothers can even be seen purchasing items like a ski mask, red hat, sunglasses, and rope that were used in the incident.
Chicago police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi, admitted that the brothers provided “new evidence” in the case that would lead to Smollett being charged.
Were there any signs Smollett may have been lying all along?
In addition to contradictory descriptions of the alleged attackers, Smollett had been reticent to meet with investigators for a follow-up interview. And while he has every legal right to not answer questions as per his attorney’s advice, some critics argued from the beginning that his story had holes in it, like the 40-minute gap between the supposed attack and when police were contacted.
Supposition wasn’t enough, however. The investigators ultimately needed to present evidence to suggest Smollett’s story was false (including the payment for services and phone records showing communication between Smollett and the brothers).
Another red flag for investigators early on may have been when Smollett initially refused to turn his phone over to the police. At the time, the police were trying to establish a timeline of the attack based on Smollett’s own statement that he was speaking on the phone to his manager when the alleged attack happened. Though he eventually provided redacted phone records to investigators, it’s unclear if any of the phone records were edited. It appears that the phone records showing communication between Smollett and the brothers came from the brothers’ own phone records, which they handed over willingly.
At one point, Smollett also directed the police to a security camera that he believed captured the alleged assault. During his GMA interview, Smollett said, “I looked up and I saw there was a camera directly on the light post that is in the intersection. So I’m like, ‘There it is!’ … And then the detective told me that the camera inside of the casing was facing north, so they didn’t have it, and that was disappointing.”
On February 20, when the grand jury made its decision, CNN’s Don Lemon said, “There were credible reasons to be skeptical.”
Could Smollett actually face jail time?
Yes. The charge for filing a false police report is a felony in Illinois. Technically, it’s considered a Class 4 felony, the least serious of all possible felony charges, but it still carries a sentence ranging from one to three years in prison and fines up to $25,000.
In order to charge Smollett, the investigators needed to prove to the grand jury that he knowingly lied about the incident to police, which resulted in a false police report. The actor could also be forced to pay restitution for the cost of the investigation, which, given the high-profile nature of the case, could be substantial.
As this case moves forward, prosecutors could also consider adding an obstruction of justice charge, which basically means that Smollett would be accused of “knowingly” resisting or obstructing the work of an investigator. This could also carry jail time.
The 16 additional charges that have been added each also carry up to four years in jail or probation. Smollett has already pled not guilty to the first disorderly conduct charge.
At this point, one of the best-case scenarios for the actor could be to plead to a misdemeanor to avoid prison time. But again, given the high-profile nature of the case, a judge may not be so lenient as to accept the plea. Smollett could end up facing a very public criminal trial. Even before he was formally charged, he hired two criminal-defense attorneys, Victor Henderson and Todd Pugh, who said they intend to vigorously defend their client against all charges.
What about the threatening letter Smollett says he received? Did he fabricate that, too?
Johnson confirmed during a press conference on February 21 that the police believe Smollett did fabricate the letter. Both the FBI and U.S. Postal inspectors are currently investigating the letter, which said, “You will die black faggot,” in cut-out magazine letters. It also featured a stick figure hanging from a tree.
Can Smollett get into even more legal trouble for faking a letter?
Smollett could be charged with federal mail fraud, which carries its own set of criminal charges beyond what he’s facing in the state of Illinois. To be convicted of mail fraud, a prosecutor would need to prove that the actor intended to perform a fraudulent act and that he used the mail purposely to execute it.
Charges for being convicted of mail fraud range from fines up to $250,000 to prison time up to 20 years. Other lesser options include probation or even making restitution. The penalty really depends on the severity of the case and the criminal history of the person or persons involved.
What happens when someone is charged with a felony?
A felony remains on a person’s criminal record for the duration of his life. It may preclude him from certain things, like being able to vote or even run for and hold political office. Felons are also disqualified from jury duty for at least seven years. Felons are also unable to own firearms.
In addition, felons risk losing permits or licenses for work depending on the nature of the crime. While there’s no telling what kind of impact this case could already be having on his career and public image, it’s unlikely Smollett would lose acting credentials because of the felony, though he could certainly lose other opportunities, like endorsements and even key roles now that his image is damaged.
As a convicted felon, he could also be denied approval as a foster or adoptive parent. Landlords can even evict a tenant who is deemed dangerous to the residential community though, again, this is unlikely even in the worst-case scenario for Smollett. Even with a felony conviction, prosecutors would be pretty hard-pressed to prove that Smollett is a danger to the community.
Bottom line, if convicted of these felony charges, Smollett would likely serve jail time, pay fines, or be put on probation. It will ultimately depend on a judge’s discretion and the seriousness of the charges. The fact that this has been such a high-profile investigation could work both for and against the actor.
Is there anything Smollett can do to stay out of jail?
It’s likely that his defense attorneys will argue for probation for Smollett. If the actor pleads guilty, he may be able to downgrade the charges by taking responsibility for what happened. Thus far, though, he has made no comment about the grand jury’s decision. In fact, Smollett has continued to stand by his story about being attacked.
If his attorneys can successfully get probation for the actor, it would allow Smollett to avoid jail time altogether. If they decide to argue for it, they’ll likely make the case that his celebrity and charitable work are ways he can make amends for his crimes.
Being on probation, however, carries its own set of challenges. For example, there are many different conditions that can be applied to probation, like checking in with a court officer, sustaining employment, and even getting counseling. Plus, a person who violates the terms of his probation can be sent directly to jail for the duration of a sentence.
Probation can also limit where and when someone can travel (like not being permitted to leave the jurisdiction), which could adversely affect Smollett’s acting and music work.
Has Smollett had any other trouble with the law?
In 2007, Smollett pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor counts related to a DUI in Los Angeles. One of the counts was, interestingly, giving false information to the police.
The actor reportedly gave police a false name when he was arrested, that of his brother Jake. As such, he was charged with false impersonation, as well as driving under the influence and driving without a license. He was sentenced to three years’ probation. He also completed a mandatory alcohol-treatment program.