Criminal Justice

Jussie Smollett Tries To Convince the Court 'There Was No Hoax'

Accused of orchestrating a hate crime hoax, the former actor took the stand at his trial on Monday.

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Taking a page out of the Kyle Rittenhouse playbook—though with a very different outcome likely in store—former Empire star Jussie Smollett testified at his own trial on Monday. Authorities have accused the actor of hiring two associates to rough him up and make it look like an anti-black, anti-gay hate crime; he faces six charges of disorderly conduct for allegedly making false reports to the police.

"There was no hoax," Smollett said on the stand Monday.

It remains to be seen whether a jury will believe that. Last week, the prosecution rested after producing mountains of evidence that Smollett was the, er, mastermind behind the attack. The courtroom was shown a video the purportedly depicted Smollett and his would-be assailants—Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, two brothers from Nigeria who had worked as extras on Empirerehearsing the fake hate crime and canvassing the area where it would take place.

The Osundairos also took the stand, confirming that Smollett had hired them to beat him up—even paying for the rope that he wanted them to tie around his neck like a noose. The brothers, who had previously procured drugs for Smollett, testified that they thought they owed him. They said they didn't know Smollett intended to talk to the police; they thought he simply wanted media attention and sympathy so that he could make more money on the show.

Smollett denied the allegations on Monday, claiming that he feared for his life when he was suddenly attacked on the streets of Chicago in the middle of the night. He claimed he had gone out—and the brothers knew where he was—because they had instructed him to buy eggs for his diet.

He also claimed he had previously visited a bathhouse with Abimbola Osundairo where they had engaged in amorous activity. (Osundairo denies this.) The defense's theory is that the brothers are possibly homophobic—Smollett is gay—and had also wanted to scare Smollett into retaining them as bodyguards.

As I wrote back in February 2019, the Smollett incident is a vital reminder that some hate crimes are hoaxes; it would behoove the media to tread lightly with respect to sensational claims that only feel true because they confirm certain biases. On college campuses, where what passes for hate crimes are termed "bias incidents," and are often investigated by university officials, most go unsolved. But among those that do get solved, the vast majority are either deliberate hoaxes or misunderstandings: Somebody left some wires or shoelaces hanging from a tree or a doorknob, and an alarmed person reported it.

There are, of course, thousands of real hate crimes committed every year, but the flashiest incidents—like ones that neatly conform to stereotypes about racist Trump supporters— should be approached with caution.

If convicted, Smollett could face up to three years in prison. That's a lengthy sentence for a nonviolent offender who poses no danger to society. The important thing is for the court to expose his lie, not lock him up for years.