Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was sentenced Thursday to 30 months of felony probation, including 150 days in jail, and ordered to pay restitution of more than $120,000 and a $25,000 fine for making false reports to police that he was the victim of a hate crime in January 2019.
After the judge announced his sentence, Smollett lowered his face mask and said he was innocent. “Your honour, I respect you and I respect the jury, but I did not do this,” the actor told the judge, before turning to the court. “And I am not suicidal. And if anything happens to me when I go in there, I did not do it to myself. And you must all know that.”
Just before he was taken into custody, the actor yelled again that he was innocent and raised a fist in the air.
Cook County Judge James Linn spoke for more than 30 minutes before announcing Smollett’s sentence, telling the actor that he wrote the script and picked the actors for the hoax, and that his premeditation for the act was an “aggravating factor” in the case.
“There’s a side of you that has this arrogance, and selfishness and narcissism that’s just disgraceful,” the judge said. “You’re not a victim of a racial hate crime, you’re not a victim of a homophobic hate crime. You’re just a charlatan pretending to be a victim of a hate crime, and that’s shameful.”
Social justice figures urged for leniency
Smollett, 39, was found guilty in December on five counts of felony disorderly conduct for making false reports about what he said was an anti-gay and anti-Black hate crime.
The actor, who is Black and gay, told Chicago police that on a frigid night in January 2019 two unknown men attacked him, yelled racist and homophobic slurs at him, poured bleach on him and wrapped a noose around his neck.
Celebrities and politicians rushed to defend him publicly, and Chicago police investigated the case as a possible hate crime. But they soon determined the actor orchestrated the incident and paid two brothers he knew from the Fox drama “Empire” to stage the incident for publicity.
Smollett maintained his innocence under oath during the trial, but the jury convicted him on five of six felony charges after nine hours of deliberations.
While a conviction for disorderly conduct for a false crime report is punishable by up to three years in prison, it is rare for a judge to sentence an offender with no prior felony convictions to prison time for the charge.
Prosecutors on Thursday urged the judge to give Smollett an “appropriate” sentence, pointing to the fact that the actor has never taken responsibility for his actions and saying he may have hurt efforts of real hate crime victims to come forward.
Smollett’s attorneys argued that he should be given a more lenient punishment such a probation, citing his lack of criminal history and community service he has performed.
They read several letters which attested to that part of his life. Before announcing the sentence, the judge also spoke of the leading figures in social justice circles that asked for a lenient sentence for Smollett.
“You do have quite a record of real community service and quite a record of attaching with people,” the judge said. “I’m mindful of pleas of mercy, particularly from people that are in the arena.”
But ultimately, the judge said, this act showed Smollett’s “dark side.”
Smollett attorney Tina Glandian also argued the guilty verdict should be overturned and a new trial granted based on legal errors leading up to and during the trial. Judge Linn denied the defense’s request, saying he believed Smollett received a fair trial.
‘He shamed my brother’
In a news conference following the sentencing, Smollett’s brother, Jojo Smollett, told reporters he was disappointed with the outcome.
“He shamed my brother. He spoke about his arrogance,” Jojo Smollett said. “He doesn’t know the struggles my brother is encountering. He doesn’t know anything that he’s dealing with.”
Jazz Smollett, the actor’s sister, called the decision a “miscarriage of justice.”
“My brother is innocent,” Smollett’s sister said. “This should not be a controversial statement because it is the absolute truth.”
Special Prosecutor Daniel Webb said he was “extraordinarily pleased” with the sentence, adding that Smollett’s “conduct denigrated hate crimes.” Webb said the judge’s comments showed “he clearly has understood … that this was a course of conduct that deserved severe punishment.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx also commented on the sentencing. Foxx had separated herself from the case to address potential concerns of impartiality over “familiarity with potential witnesses,” her office previously said. In March 2019, a grand jury indicted Smollett on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct. In a dramatic reversal days later, the state’s attorney office dropped all charges.
In an op-ed published in the Chicago Sun-TImes on Thursday night, Foxx said the justice system “failed” in Smollett’s case by pursuing his prosecution, which cost taxpayers “millions.” Foxx defended her office’s decision to drop the initial charges, saying Smollett had already forfeited a $10,000 bond, had never been accused of a violent crime and already paid a “reputational price.”
But, Foxx wrote, because of a “relentless, organized and effective” mob that criticized the decision, a special prosecutor was later assigned the case and Smollett was “indicted, tried and convicted by a kangaroo prosecution in a matter of months.”
In a separate statement Thursday night, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office said it will “continue to prioritize violent crime and supporting victims as we respond to the relentless violence we are seeing.”
How we got here
Smollett was initially indicted in March 2019 on 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct after police determined his reports were false.
The decision from Foxx’s office to drop all charges set off debate over whether Smollett had received preferential treatment, leading a judge to appoint Webb, the special prosecutor to look into it in August 2019. That led to a second grand jury, which in February 2020 indicted Smollett on the six felony charges.
The incident effectively ended Smollett’s acting career. His character was written out of “Empire,” which ended in 2020, and though he has since directed and produced a film, he’s yet to appear in another TV or film acting role.
In court late last year, the brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, were among seven witnesses for the prosecution at the trial. They testified that Smollett directed them and paid them to stage the attack in an attempt to garner sympathetic media coverage.
“Who was in charge of this thing?” special prosecutor Dan Webb asked.
“Jussie was,” Abimbola Osundairo told the jury.
Smollett testified in his own defense to deny any such plan and said he paid the brothers only for training advice and nutritional tips. He cast doubt on their true motivations and said he had a sexual relationship with one of the brothers, which the brother denied.
Smollett has no prior felonies
The primary question at sentencing was whether Smollett, who has no prior felonies, would be sentenced to prison
.CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Joey Jackson previously told CNN that Smollett “exposed himself to jail time” when he testified in court.
“What Jussie Smollett said was resoundingly rejected by that jury. The jury did not buy what he was selling. That’s not lost upon a judge. You came into the courtroom and fabricated,” Jackson said.
The city of Chicago also filed a lawsuit against Smollett in April 2019 after the actor declined to pay the city $130,106.15 for the police investigation, court documents show. Smollett filed a countersuit in November 2020.
Chicago’s Department of Law noted in the city’s suit that over two dozen police officers and detectives spent weeks working on Smollett’s case in 2019, resulting in 1,836 overtime hours.
Following Smollett’s conviction in December, the city said it intended to continue pursuing its lawsuit.
During the sentencing, the judge highlighted the amount of police work that went into the investigation, telling Smollett that police resources are valuable and limited.
“You took away a lot of resources from other places, from other real victims of real crimes and used up the police resources for your own benefit, and that’s a big problem here,” the judge said.