Friday, March 11, 2022

Actor Jussie Smollett sentenced to 5 months in jail and three years probation

 A judge in Chicago sentenced Jussie Smollett to five months in jail on Thursday, ordering that the actor be incarcerated for falsely reporting to the police that he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in 2019, reported The New York Times.

At the end of a hearing that lasted about five hours, Judge James B. Linn excoriated Mr. Smollett from the bench, saying that he had concluded that the actor had premeditated the hoax and that despite his and his family’s admirable past work in social justice, he had an arrogant, selfish side and had planned the stunt because he “craved the attention.”

In the searing speech, the judge said that Mr. Smollett’s name had become synonymous with lying, that he had sought to throw a “national pity party” for himself and that Mr. Smollett’s conduct had undermined other victims of hate crimes at a sensitive time, as America was trying to climb out of its painful history of racism.

“You took some scabs off some healing wounds and you ripped them apart,” the judge said. “And for one reason: You wanted to make yourself more famous.”

Given the chance to address the court before the sentencing, Mr. Smollett declined. But after Judge Linn read his sentence, the actor defiantly stood up and declared, “I did not do this, and I am not suicidal,” adding that “if anything happens to me when I go in there, I did not do it to myself.” As he was taken into custody to begin his jail sentence, Mr. Smollett raised his right fist. His lawyers immediately said they planned to appeal.

During the hearing, the defense and prosecution presented sharply different views of Mr. Smollett’s offense. Prosecutors framed it as a calculated plan to deceive law enforcement and the public at a time when hate crimes were on the rise. Mr. Smollett’s lawyers portrayed it as a minor low-level felony that had been subjected to an outsize amount of prosecutorial attention.

“Why are we jumping up and down and acting like this is a murder case?” said Nenye Uche, a lawyer for Mr. Smollett. “It’s not.”

Daniel K. Webb, the special prosecutor who handled the case, argued in court that Mr. Smollett had made matters worse for himself by declaring his innocence in front of the jury.

The judge ultimately sided with the prosecution.

At trial, Mr. Smollett had been found guilty of felony disorderly conduct, which carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. The judge decided on a shorter sentence, to be served in a local jail, and also gave Mr. Smollett a term of more than two years of probation and a fine of $25,000. He was also ordered to pay more than $120,000 in restitution for the cost of Chicago’s police investigation of his case.

Before the sentencing, well-known figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Samuel L. Jackson and his wife, the actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson; and Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., wrote letters to the judge asking him to forgo prison time. Supporters argued that Mr. Smollett had no previous felonies on his record and that he had suffered reputational damage after the police accused him of orchestrating a hoax assault.

On Thursday, Mr. Webb recommended that Mr. Smollett be incarcerated for an unspecified amount of time, arguing that his misconduct was serious, that he lied to the jury and that he had shown no contrition.

“What Smollett did in this case is he denigrated, degraded true hate crimes and he marginalized the people who are true victims of hate crimes,” Mr. Webb told the judge. 

The sentencing caps more than three years of twists and turns in a case that inflamed political divisions and stirred up controversy among Chicago officials. For days, Mr. Smollett was viewed as a victim, someone who had been beaten and targeted with racial and homophobic slurs. Even after the authorities challenged his version of events, it seemed as though Mr. Smollett would avoid significant criminal punishment. Prosecutors dropped the charges against him in March 2019. But in 2020, Mr. Smollett was indicted again after Mr. Webb revived the investigation into what happened in the early morning hours of Jan. 29, 2019.

The case was closely followed nationally, and in Chicago the issue became particularly potent, as prosecutors’ decision to drop the charges divided their office and the Police Department; the issue also became a central vein of criticism against Kim Foxx, the county’s top prosecutor, during her recent campaign for re-election. 

During the trial, the prosecution told the jury that Mr. Smollett had instructed two brothers, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, to attack him near his apartment in Chicago, where they placed a rope around his neck like a noose and yelled, “This is MAGA country.”

The Osundairos each testified at length, explaining how Mr. Smollett took them through a “dry run” of the attack and asked one of them to “fake beat him up.”

Mr. Smollett, 39, who in 2019 was best known for starring in the music-industry drama “Empire,” maintained his innocence during seven hours of testimony over two days, telling the jury that he had been the victim of a real hate crime. His lawyers argued in court that the Osundairo brothers relished their proximity to fame and that they wanted to scare Mr. Smollett enough to get him to hire them as his security detail.

The lawyers also highlighted homophobic comments by Olabinjo Osundairo, suggesting the attack could have been motivated by bias against Mr. Smollett, who is gay. (On the stand, Mr. Osundairo repeatedly denied being homophobic.)

The prosecution's evidence included video surveillance of the men meeting up for what the brothers said was the “dry run” and Instagram messages from Mr. Smollett to Abimbola Osundairo shortly before the attack in which the actor provided updates on the timing of his flight back to Chicago.

The defense disputed that Mr. Smollett had planned the attack, arguing that both the messages and the footage were evidence that he had been interacting with Abimbola Osundairo because he had been providing the actor with fitness training.

The 12-person jury in December found Mr. Smollett guilty of five out of six counts of felony disorderly conduct related to his police report.

Judge Linn announced his decision after denying the defense’s bid to have the conviction thrown out or for the actor to gain a new trial.

Much of the hearing was devoted to efforts by the defense to argue that Mr. Smollett deserved a new trial and that he certainly should not be jailed. The courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse contained several members of his family, including his older brother, Joel Smollett Jr., and other supporters, such as a former musical director for “Empire,” Rich Daniels. Mr. Daniels took the witness stand to speak to Mr. Smollett’s character, giving examples of what supporters described as a generous and humble spirit.

“Incarceration of any kind would send the wrong message,” said Joel Smollett Jr., as Jussie Smollett wiped tears from his eyes, “especially in a time in which we as a nation have expressed, in a bipartisan plurality, the desire to see real criminal justice reform.”

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