A Cook County, Illinois, grand jury has indicted “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett on 16 felony counts for allegedly lying about a hate-crime attack, according to multiple reports. The indictment, returned Thursday, comes two weeks after prosecutors charged Smollett with felony disorderly conduct for filing a false police report.
Smollett, who is black and openly gay, told Chicago police in late January that he had been attacked by two people who yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him, poured a chemical substance on him and wrapped a rope around his neck. He also said that at least one of the attackers had yelled, “This is MAGA country,” referring to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. The incident attracted a great deal of attention, as celebrities and advocacy organizations expressed their support on social media, and Smollett said on “Good Morning America” in mid-February that he was “forever changed” by the incident.
But skepticism about Smollett’s account grew as police continued to investigate, questioning two “persons of interest” who turned out to be brothers of Nigerian descent who had previously worked on Fox’s “Empire.” Within days of the “Good Morning America” interview, police announced that the trajectory of the criminal investigation had shifted, and that Smollett was being treated as a suspect.
Smollett was arrested Feb. 21, and at a court hearing that same day, prosecutors alleged he had paid the two men, Abimbola “Abel” Osundairo and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, to help him stage the attack. They said Abel Osundairo and Smollett were close when they worked together on the set of “Empire,” where Abel was a stand-in for a love interest of Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon, and Ola was an extra. Prosecutors also alleged that Smollett told the brothers what to say and provided them with a $100 bill to cover supplies, including rope, ski masks and red hats that resemble the MAGA sort.
Chicago police said at a Feb. 21 media briefing that Smollett faked the attack because he was “dissatisfied with his salary” on the Fox drama. Executive producers said in a statement issued the next day that Smollett’s character would be removed from the current season’s final two episodes.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Smollett’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, called the indictment “redundant and vindictive,” and again denied that Smollett played a role in the alleged attack.
“Jussie adamantly maintains his innocence even if law enforcement has robbed him of that presumption,” Geragos said.
Smollett was released on $100,000 bail. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office did not return The Post’s request for comment on the 16-count indictment.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Sonia Rao