Osundair brothers role in alleged hoax attack central to both prosecution, defense
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Jussie Smollett's trial began Monday, nearly three years after the former "Empire" actor reported he was the victim of a racist, homophobic attack in Chicago.
By 4:30 p.m., 12 jurors and three alternates had been seated. Opening statements began at 4:45 p.m. The trial is expected to last about a week, and it is not clear if Smollett will take the stand in his own defense.
The actor is facing charges for what authorities say was a fake attack. Smollett told police he was walking home early in the morning back in January of 2019 when two men recognized him and began hurling racial and homophobic slurs at him.
He said the men struck him, wrapped a noose around his neck and shouted, "This is MAGA country."
Just weeks later, Smollett was charged with staging the attack to further his career and secure a higher salary. Police said he hired two brothers to pretend to attack him for $3,500.
Special prosecutor Dan Webb said in his opening statement the actor recruited two brothers to help him carry out the fake attack, then reported it to Chicago police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 staff hours on the investigation.
"It's just plain wrong for Mr. Smollett to denigrate something as serious as a hate crime," Webb said.
Webb was named as special prosecutor after Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx's office dropped the original charges filed against Smollett. A new indictment was returned in 2020.
Webb said Smollett, upset over his studio's tepid response to a hate-filled letter he'd received, recruited his friend Bola Osundairo and his brother Ola to stage the attack in Streeterville.
He said Smollett had a "dress rehearsal" with the two brothers, including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and "MAGA." Smollett also told the brothers to buy ski masks, red hats and a rope, Webb told jurors.
Smollett even told Bola, "I want you to fake beat me up," according to Webb.
The prosecution said Smollett and the Osundairos exchanged at least five phone calls and nearly 50 text and Instagram messages in the days leading up to the incident, and that video showed Smollett picking up the siblings in his car and driving to Streeterville for a dry run.
"The brothers' testimony is absolutely key to this case, and it will be critical for the defense to work around it," said ABC7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer.
The defense countered that there was nothing fake about the attack. Attorney Nenye Uche called the Oscundairos "sophisticated, highly intelligent criminals," and said in their apartment was found "weapons of war," including multiple guns, ammunition, and heroin.
The defense said Smollett was the victim of wrong assumptions.
"The truth will come through, and the public will also hear the actual facts of the case and not the fabrications," said Gina Belafonte, friend of Smollett.
Smollett faces six counts of disorderly conduct, a class 4 felony and carries a sentence of up to three years in prison but experts believe if Smollett is convicted he would most likely be placed on probation.
What to expect from Jussie Smollett trial
Smollett walked into the courthouse flanked by family members and attorneys.
Judge Linn asked potential jurors if they have been the victim of a hate crime and if they have watched "Empire" or TMZ, a program and website about celebrities.
"What you have to do is find a jury that can say honestly it can be fair despite whatever it knows or whatever it has heard about the case, it can put all of that aside, listen to the evidence as it's presented at a trial and render a verdict," said ABC7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer.
Smollett has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.