CHICAGO — Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett testified in his own defense Monday, Dec. 6, that he paid $3,500 to a friend for a diet and exercise plan for him, not to arrange phony hate crime beating on himself.
The friend, Abimbola Osundario, testified last week that Smollett texted in late January 2019 that he needed help “on the low,” then gave the check to him and his brother with instructions to “fake” beat him up while yelling homophobic and racial slurs at him. Prosecutors have alleged Smollett staged the phony attack because the studio wasn’t taking his security concerns seriously.
Testifying in his own defense, however, Smollett told jurors in his criminal trial that the text referenced some herbal steroids he wanted Osudairo to pick up for him during an upcoming trip to Nigeria, and the check was simply for a workout plan to get him in shape for the filming of an upcoming music video.
Smollett said that after sending the text he met Osundairo at the Cinespace studios on Chicago’s West Side and gave him the money. They went for a drive and smoked some marijuana, and Smollett dropped him off in the Lakeview neighborhood.
“Did you talk to him about some hoax?” defense attorney Nenye Uche asked.
“No,” Smollett said. And a few moments later, he denied there was any hoax at all.
“There was no hoax,” Smollett told jurors.
Smollett said he talked to Abimbola Osundairo about a training plan in hopes that he’d get more of a dancer or swimmer’s build. They didn’t discuss payment much. “Basically I turned to him and said, you should just be my trainer.”
Smollett also testified about how important his face was to his career.
“My character was a superstar, a pop star, a beloved GQ whatever,” he said. “It was very important that I looked like Black Cary Grant, not beat down.”
Prosecutors have framed a text from Smollett to Abimbola for help “on the low” as a request to help stage the attack. Smollett on the stand is saying it was in fact a request for those herbal steroids, which are illegal in the U.S.
When Smollett complained to Abimbola that he tends to gain weight in his face and stomach, Abimbola told him about an herbal steroid he could get him in Nigeria. “He said let me know if you need it on the low,” Smollett said.
Dressed in a dark gray suit and maroon tie, Smollett was sworn for his highly anticipated testimony just after noon Monday, and at first spoke so quietly that his attorney had to ask him to speak up.
After speaking to jurors about his family life and his history as an entertainer, Smollett’s testimony focused on his time on “Empire,” and his relationship with Osundairo, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses. Osundairo told jurors last week that Smollett recruited him to help orchestrate the phony hate-crime attack.
Smollett met Osundairo at a club during Season 4 of “Empire;” the two men then used cocaine and weed, and went to a bathhouse in Boystown together, where they did more drugs and made out, Smollett said.
“There was some touching,” he said. At a separate bathhouse encounter, the two men made out again, and masturbated next to each other, he said.
Smollett’s testimony could signal an attempt by the defense to suggest the brothers carried out the attack for reasons other than the alleged attempt by the actor to fake it and get the attention of leaders of his television show.
On the witness stand last week, Osundairo denied that he and Smollett had ever dated, and said he did not think there was sexual tension between the two men. Defense attorneys have also tried to paint Osundairo’s older brother, Olabinjo, as a homophobe.
Smollett said Monday that he and Abimbola struck up a friendship; they would drive around smoking blunts as part of Smollett’s creative process, and as a way to relax, he said.
Prosecutors have pointed to surveillance footage of Smollett allegedly driving around town with the Osundairos as evidence that they did a “dry run” before the hoax attack.
Regarding Olabinjo, Smollett said he “kind of creeped me out.”
“I didn’t even know his name,” Smollett testified. “It was one of those, you see somebody too many times to ask them their name. I was just like, ‘Hey brother.’ ”
Anticipation of Smollett’s testimony was growing Monday morning at the Leighton Criminal Court Building as the defense appeared to be winding up its case.
Before Smollett took the stand, Judge James Linn ordered the rear and side doors of his courtroom opened so spectators who could not get in due to COVID-19 social distancing protocols could listen from the hallway, where plastic chairs were set up three-deep.
As Smollett testified, his mother, five siblings, godmother and several other supporters crammed into the front row of the gallery.
Smollett began his testimony by walking jurors through his history as an entertainer, from his years as a working child actor to landing a starring role on “Empire.”
Speaking in a soft tone and smiling occasionally, he said he wrote to the show’s creator Lee Daniels personally, and auditioned several times before snagging the role of Jamal Lyon.
“I’d never seen a gay man, let alone a gay Black man, portrayed that way,” said Smollett, who is Black and gay, on the stand.
Smollett never had any problem with the Fox studio, and he started off on “Empire” making at least $25,000 an episode, he testified — apparently an attempt by the defense to head off prosecution arguments that Smollett was dissatisfied with the way the studio treated him.
Among his lawyer’s first questions was whether he grew up rich.
“Goodness, no,” he answered.
His testimony is expected to be some of the centerpiece evidence in the defense’s case.
The day’s first witness was Anthony Moore, a security guard who was making the rounds in Streeterville in the early hours of Jan. 29, 2019, the night of the attack.
He was near the Chicago Burger Company when he saw what appeared to be a white man in a ski mask coming toward him, he testified. He also saw a second person, but couldn’t make out that person’s face, he said. A third person was by the stairs on all fours “like he was looking for something,” he said.
Through Moore’s testimony, the defense hopes to corroborate Smollett’s initial statements to police, in which he said his attackers appeared to be white. Defense attorneys at hearings earlier this year have said they may argue a theory that the prosecutions’ key witnesses — two Black brothers who told police they helped Smollett stage the attack — in fact attacked Smollett outright, with the help of accomplices who may have been white.
Almost a year after the attack, in January 2020, Moore was interviewed by special prosecutors and signed a statement that they typed up, he testified.
That statement, however, does not say he saw a white man. It states that Moore was possibly mistaken by the flashlight he shined into the man’s face.
From the stand Monday, Moore said he felt pressured and threatened by prosecutors “to put something out there that I didn’t see.”
Defense attorneys also called to the stand “Empire” executive producer and showrunner Brett Mahoney, who testified about a threatening letter Smollett was sent. Prosecutors are expected to argue that Smollett orchestrated the hoax because he didn’t think the studio was taking his safety seriously after receiving the note.
But, Mahoney said, they did in fact beef up security on set in response. And Smollett “didn’t want a lot of attention around the letter,” he testified.
Smollett faces six counts of felony disorderly conduct after allegedly staging a hoax hate-crime attack on himself and then lying to police about it. The trial is a culmination of almost three years of intense media attention and controversy surrounding the case, which became a national culture-war firestorm.
On Thursday evening, after telling jurors they would have an impromptu three-day weekend, Cook County Judge James Linn said he believed the case could wrap up Monday.
Prosecutors rested their case Thursday after the testimony of their two central witnesses: Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, two brothers who told jurors Smollett recruited them to stage the phony hate crime.
Shortly afterward, the defense began presenting witnesses. So far, a music manager, a publicist and a doctor have testified on Smollett’s behalf, in addition to those called Monday.
The actor told officers in 2019 that he was attacked by two people who yelled racist and homophobic slurs, poured bleach on him, and tied a rope around his neck like a noose. The Osundairos, however, told police Smollett recruited them to stage the attack, turning Smollett from victim to suspect.
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