Prosecutors begin calling witnesses on second day of actor Jussie Smollett's trial for reporting allegedly bogus hate crime

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CHICAGO — One of the lead Chicago police detectives assigned to investigate the alleged hate-crime attack on Jussie Smollett took the stand Tuesday morning in Smollett’s trial, walking jurors step by step through the investigation that turned Smollett from victim to suspect.

Smollett, previously best known for his role on “Empire,” became a magnet for international controversy after he was accused of orchestrating a phony racist and homophobic attack on himself in 2019. He faces six counts of making false reports to police, a minor felony.

Chicago police Det. Michael Theis insisted that the investigation was thorough and meticulous, countering the defense’s assertion during opening statements that Smollett was the victim of a nightmarish rush to judgment.

Police put in more than 3,000 man-hours into the investigation, and took Smollett’s allegations seriously, Theis said.

“This was horrible. I mean the crime was a hate crime, but a horrible hate crime. There was a noose, there was bleach,” Theis said. “It was local news, it was national news, international news. Everyone wanted to know what happened, from the mayor on down.”

Smollett reported to police that he was attacked by two men near his Streeterville apartment one frigid night in January 2019. They poured a chemical substance on him, yelled slurs and shouted “This is MAGA country,” a reference to then-President Donald Trump’s slogan.

But ultimately, Theis said, police “determined that the alleged hate crime was actually a staged event and that it did not occur.”

It was a hoax, Theis said. And when prosecutors asked who orchestrated the hoax, his answer was brief: “Mr. Jussie Smollett.”

Theis, who was initially put in charge of hunting down surveillance video, walked jurors through an extensive compilation of camera footage from before and after the attack.

Prosecutors allege that Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, two brothers Smollett knew from the “Empire” set, helped him carry out the fake attack in exchange for a $3,500 payout. Smollett’s defense team, however, has previously stated they believe the brothers actually attacked Smollett with the help of at least one other person, making Smollett a victim twice over: The victim of a hate crime and a frame-up.

In essence, nobody disputes that Smollett was attacked. The question is whether or not the attack was staged.

No footage exists of the attack itself. But when police found video of two people walking near the area of the attack, one of whom was wearing a red hat, Theis said they “got excited. We thought, we’re on the right track here.”

They found footage of the two men walking around the surrounding blocks at 2 a.m. in frigid temperatures, and tracked their cab back to the Lakeview neighborhood, Theis testified.

“We felt that we had to two individuals we were looking for,” Theis said. Not only did they fit the description, they paid cash for the cab and walked for nearly a mile back home. “That told us they were trying to hide their movements.”

Then there was a breakthrough: A subpoena to Uber showed the name of the person who had ordered a rideshare on the night of the attack, matching the area where they had tracked the suspects. It was Olabinjo Osundairo.

The Osundairos are expected to be centerpiece witnesses for the prosecution later this week. After they were arrested, they told police that it was in fact Smollett who recruited them to help carry out a phony attack.

Smollett’s defense attacked the Osundairos in opening statements Monday as liars and criminals who hated Smollett “because of who he is as a person.”

The defense will have a chance to present witnesses when prosecutors wrap up their main case, which is expected to happen later this week. Smollett himself could also take the stand.

Before court Tuesday, Smollett’s older brother, Jojo, read a statement of support saying it has been “incredibly painful” for the family to watch the case unfold.

“We’re confident in his legal team, and we look forward to people hearing the actual facts of this case,” Smollett told the media in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Court Building. “We love him. We’re here to support him, all of us, and to lift him up.”

As the parties assembled in the 7th-floor courtroom, Jussie Smollett’s lawyer, Nenye Uche, also had a bit of a message for the press. He walked up to courtroom sketch artists with a smile on his face.

“Really?” he said jokingly of the sketches of him from the day before, when he gave an opening statement in the case. “Really? I looked like an African bullfrog!”

Opening statements began Monday evening to a jury of six men and six women. Special prosecutor Dan Webb ran through the now-familiar allegations against Smollett, beginning with a “hate” letter sent to the “Empire” studio on Chicago’s West Side days before the alleged attack.

Webb said that while “to this day” law enforcement has not determined who sent the letter, Smollett was upset that the studio didn’t take it more seriously, so he concocted the plan to pay the Osundairos, whom he knew from the set of “Empire,” to assault him while yelling slurs and putting a rope around his neck to make it look more like a lynching.

But Smollett’s attorneys said it was the actor, who is Black and openly gay, who was in fact the real victim, not only of a homophobic attack but also of a “tremendous rush to judgment” by police and prosecutors that ruined his career and reputation.

And the Osundairo brothers are opportunistic liars who were using him to advance their own careers, defense attorney Uche said in his opening statement.

In his opening remarks, Uche said there’s no physical or forensic evidence tying Smollett to the alleged hoax. He also said there’s no evidence Smollett was upset with situation at “Empire,” as the prosecution has alleged the actor carried out the alleged hoax to call attention to himself and better his position with the show.

“Jussie was not a person who liked attention. Even his publicist was frustrated at him for that,” he said. “It’s fantasy.”


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