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Jussie Smollett, the former Empire actor who was convicted of staging a racist and anti-gay attack against himself, was sentenced to 150 days in jail on Thursday.
The jail punishment is part of a 30-month probationary sentence. Cook County Judge James Linn said Smollett would begin his time behind bars immediately and also ordered him to pay $120,106 in restitution and $25,000 in fines.
“I believe that you did damage to real hate crimes — to hate crime victims,” Linn told Smollett before announcing his sentence. The judge acknowledged that he could not say “for sure how much damage there was,” but he said he hoped that other victims would not be dissuaded from coming forward and that authorities would not be more skeptical of victims who are willing to report such crimes.
Smollett declined to make a statement prior to the issuance of his sentence, but after Linn announced his decision, the actor stood up, pulled down his mask, and repeatedly said, "I am not suicidal."
"I am innocent and I am not suicidal," Smollett said. "If anything happens to me when I go in there, I did not do it to myself and you must all know that."
As sheriff's deputies escorted him out of the courtroom, Smollett raised his fist and continued yelling.
"I am not suicidal," he said. "And I'm innocent. I could have said that I was guilty a long time ago."
Jussie Smollett leaves the courtroom after a judge sentenced him to 150 days in jail for staging a racist and anti-gay attack against himself."I am not suicidal. And I'm innocent. I could've said that I was guilty a long time ago."
Smollett's sentencing comes more than three years after the actor, now 39, told Chicago police that two men yelling racist and anti-gay slurs attacked him, poured a chemical on him, and tied a rope around his neck. The Jan. 29, 2019, allegations and the subsequent unraveling of Smollett's story attracted nonstop coverage in the press as the city tried to recoup costs associated with the investigation and officials struggled with whether to prosecute the actor, who has maintained in court and in public that he did not fabricate the attack.
Police initially arrested two brothers who had been background actors on the Fox drama series but released them after investigators said new evidence had surfaced during their questioning. Authorities then accused Smollett of paying the men $3,500 to stage the attack in order to generate sympathetic media coverage.
But weeks after indicting Smollett, the Cook County state's attorney's office dismissed the case in exchange for him forfeiting his $10,000 bond and agreeing to two days of community service. In February 2020, special prosecutor Dan Webb unveiled a new grand jury indictment against the actor, finding "further prosecution of Mr. Smollett is in the interests of justice."
In December, a jury found Smollett guilty on five of the six felony counts of disorderly conduct for making a false report to police that a grand jury had indicted him with in 2020. Jurors determined that he was not guilty on one count of disorderly conduct for falsely claiming he was the victim of aggravated assault.
Smollett's attorneys recently filed paperwork asking that the court either grant him a new trial or vacate his conviction. In the 83-page document, they argued that a multitude of legal errors with the process allowed the second prosecution to move forward and that Smollett's constitutional rights were violated at trial because the court did not allow them to ask potential jurors certain questions during jury selection.
"We should have never been here to begin with," Tina Glandian, one of the actor's attorneys, told the court Thursday afternoon. "We believe it was legal error to proceed."
Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, who was criticized over her office's decision to drop the initial charges against Smollett, seemed to agree with his attorneys' argument, writing in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed published shortly after the sentencing hearing that the justice system had failed in this case.
"Given the reputational price Smollett paid, the $10,000 bond we held, and the fact that he’d never been accused of a violent crime, my office made the decision not to further pursue a criminal conviction," Foxx wrote. "This story should have ended there, as thousands upon thousands of non-prosecuted cases do every day."
Before announcing Smollett's sentence on Thursday, Linn denied the defense's request to throw out his conviction or grant a new trial, saying that he believed Smollett received a fair trial and that he stood by his and the other judges' previous rulings regarding the pretrial issues raised by the defense. He added he believed the jury reached a correct verdict based on overwhelming evidence. Smollett's legal team has said they would appeal the verdict.
During Thursday's hearing, Smollett's 92-year-old grandmother, one of his brothers, the music director for his show Empire, and the former executive director of a nonprofit he worked with spoke in favor of a lenient sentence as they described the contributions he's made to his community throughout his life. Joel Smollett Jr. said his brother has already suffered more than enough as a result of the incident and the ensuing coverage in the press.
"He has had to live in anxiety and … a pseudo form of house arrest," he said, adding that his brother faced "public scorn" and "real security threats" as a result of the "overwhelming" reporting on his prosecution. "He was in essence quarantined almost a year before the COVID-19 pandemic even began."
"Jussie should not be incarcerated," he continued. "He is not a threat to the people of Illinois."
His attorneys also read several letters from civil rights leaders and celebrities, including actors Samuel L. Jackson and Alfre Woodard, who advocated for alternatives to incarceration for Smollett's sentence.
"The punishing has been relentless and has left nothing to be taken away. He has already paid a professional and personal price that few in real power have, even for crimes against the health and safety of millions," Woodard wrote. "If he is incarcerated, I fear for his safety."
Webb, the special prosecutor, told the court that he believed Smollett lied under oath while testifying about the incident at trial and that the actor still has not accepted responsibility for the crime. For those reasons, Webb said, his team was recommending Smollett receive prison time. He declined, however, to suggest a specific length of a prison sentence, saying he trusted the judge's discretion.
He also rebuffed the assertion that the crimes Smollett was convicted of were low-level offenses, saying that the actor engaged in "serious criminal misconduct" and that his actions could discourage "true victims" from coming forward.
"What Mr. Smollett did in this case is he denigrated, degraded true hate crimes and he marginalized the people who are true victims of hate crimes," Webb argued.
But sending Smollett to prison would be an outsize response and akin to a death sentence, his attorney Nenye Uche said.
"The jails are inundated with the pandemic," Uche said. "Sending Mr. Smollett to jail is almost like a death sentence. Yes, it is. Because anything medically can go wrong."
Smollett's legal team immediately asked Linn to stay the sentence but he refused. The actor will spend his time in jail in protective custody, according to court records obtained by WGN-TV on Friday morning.
New this morning: Jussie Smollett will be in protective custody during his time in the Cook County Jail, court records show. https://t.co/2rlV1w2ti0
Before announcing his decision, Linn shared his thoughts on the case, saying he believed there were "wonderful sides" to Smollett but that his desire for attention had brought out the worst of him.
"You have another side of you that is profoundly arrogant and selfish and narcissistic. That's the only thing that can be concluded," Linn told the actor, noting that it seemed to him that Smollett staged the hoax hate crime to throw "a national pity party" for himself.
"You’re just a charlatan pretending to be a victim of a hate crime," he continued. "And that's shameful."
Linn said he was struck by the letters from notable civil rights leaders, like Jesse Jackson and NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who pleaded for mercy on Smollett's behalf and pointed to the actor's own history of standing up for social and racial justice. But that perhaps made Smollett's actions in this case — including his decision to continue lying on the stand — even more distressing, Linn said.
"The damage you’ve done to yourself is way beyond anything else that can happen to you from me or any other judge that would be sentencing you," Linn said, adding that in addition to being a convicted felon and facing major setbacks in his career, Smollett has to live with the fact that he put his family "through the ringer."
"Your very name has become an adverb for lying, and I cannot imagine what could be worse than that," he said. "'Pulling a Jussie.' That’s awful."
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A Special Prosecutor Found Big Failures In The Handling Of The Jussie Smollett CaseDavid Mack · Aug. 17, 2020
The Brothers Who Claim They Were Hired By Jussie Smollett For Hoax Attack Are Suing For DefamationAmber Jamieson · April 23, 2019