Jussie Smollett again takes stand, asserts attack on him was real as testimony in his trial wraps up

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  • Jussie Smollett
    Jussie Smollett
    American actor

CHICAGO — Jussie Smollett has been a performer all his life, but it’s his role in a real-life drama that is about to come under review by a Cook County jury.

After nearly a week of testimony from 13 witnesses, including the former “Empire” actor’s dramatic turn on the witness stand in his own defense, closing arguments are slated to begin first thing Wednesday morning in Smollett's marquee criminal trial on charges he faked a hate crime on himself in January 2019.

The defense closed out its case Tuesday soon after the conclusion of Smollett’s testimony, which grew combative during a nearly two-hour cross-examination by special prosecutor Dan Webb. The veteran attorney repeatedly — and at times successfully — tried to get Smollett back on his heels with persistent questions about the details of his account of being attacked late one night in downtown Chicago by two men who hurled racial and homophobic slurs at him.

Over and over, Webb asked versions of the same question: Wasn’t Smollett planning the hoax the whole time?

And over and over, Smollett gave versions of the same answer: There was no hoax, the attack was real.

In contrast with Monday’s more sedate testimony, Smollett often appeared irritated with Webb’s questioning about whether he had planned a phony crime. He repeatedly interrupted Webb and occasionally looked to Judge James Linn for help, saying that he was being asked questions that mischaracterized certain evidence.

During one extended exchange, Webb asked Smollett about Instagram messages that the actor claimed were public, not private as Webb had suggested. “Mr. Webb, all due respect, you don’t understand Instagram,” Smollett shot back.

When Webb, who is white, later read out an Instagram message from Smollett that included a variation of the n-word, Smollett appeared taken aback. He interrupted Webb and asked him not to use that word “out of respect for every African American in the courtroom."

Webb apologized and said Smollett could read the message out loud instead.

Smollett’s highly anticipated testimony was the centerpiece of a case that essentially comes down to a credibility contest: Who is more believable, Smollett, or Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, the brothers who testified last week that they helped Smollett fake an attack on himself?

Smollett is charged with six felony counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly lying to Chicago police about the incident.

The first part of Webb’s cross-examination on Monday afternoon appeared disjointed as Webb spent nearly an hour trying to drill down on why Smollett refused to help the Chicago police in their investigation by handing over his cell phone and medical records and submitting to a DNA swab. Smollett kept his composure and answered the questions calmly, saying he wanted to cooperate but also valued his privacy.

But when trial resumed Tuesday morning, Webb’s questions were much more pointed and led to some testy back-and-forth, with Webb interrupting Smollett and asking the judge several times to strike his answers as non-responsive.

Judge Linn repeatedly told Smollett to listen to the question and not ad lib. “Please, please,” the judge said at one point. “It’s the same for all witnesses, it’s not personal to you. The lawyer asks the questions, you answer them.”

Webb was able to point out some of the more head-scratching details of Smollett’s account, including that he picked up both Osundairo brothers at their Chicago apartment four days before the attack and smoked weed as he circled the Streeterville block near his building where the attack later occurred.

Did they plan a hoax during that drive, as the brothers both testified? Webb asked.

"Absolutely not,” Smollett said. “That never happened."

Webb also asked whether there were any messages between Smollett and Abimbola Osundario canceling plans for a workout the morning after the attack.

“No,” Smollett said. “But there’s also no messages about an attack, and I’m on trial for an attack that I didn't do.”

Smollett also said he had “more important things” to worry about than canceling a planned workout.

About an hour into Tuesday’s cross-examination, Webb asked Smollett straight out: Was it the Osundairo brothers who attacked him?

“I don’t know,” Smollett said. “ … There’s no way for me to know that, Mr. Webb.”

Did Smollett recognize Abimbola Osundairo’s build or voice?

“In that moment I‘m not going to stop and say, ‘Hey Bola, was that you?’ I don’t know,” Smollett said. “… it was pretty fast, it was an attack.”

Does Smollett doubt the Osundairos’ testimony that they are the people seen walking on surveillance footage?

“I doubt every word that they say,” Smollett replied.

“So is that them?” Webb asked.

“I just don’t know. They’re liars,” Smollett said. “They also said I had something to do with it, and that’s not true.”

Smollett said he got a good look at only one of his attackers and initially told police he believed the man was white. He saw pale skin under the man’s ski mask, and he assumed that the assailants were white because they shouted MAGA and used the n-word with a hard “R,” he said.

“I made the assumption,” Smollett said. “... It could have been a white person, it could have been a pale someone else.”

Did he say his attacker was white because it would make a fake hate crime more believable, Webb asked?

“You’d have to actually ask someone who did a fake hate crime,” he said.

On further questioning from Smollett’s attorney, the actor testified that the Osundairos actually approached him with something close to blackmail: For $1 million apiece, they would say that there was no hoax, Smollett testified.

“Did you give them the money?” attorney Nenye Uche asked.

“No,” Smollett answered.

Webb arose a few moments later to ask Smollett: Did he have any direct communication with the brothers about that request?

No, Smollett said, a lawyer or another representative of the brothers contacted Smollett’s people about it.

Webb moved to strike the testimony about the payout request altogether. Linn denied the request but told the jury they would determine how much weight to give to the unsubstantiated testimony.

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