Detective: No rush to judgment in Jussie Smollett case

Don Babwin and Sara Burnett
Associated Press

Chicago – The lead investigator of an alleged attack on Jussie Smollett on Tuesday countered a defense attorney’s claims that Chicago police rushed to judgment, saying roughly two dozen detectives clocked some 3,000 hours on what they thought was a “horrible hate crime” before concluding the ex-”Empire” actor had staged a hoax.

Taking the stand as prosecutors began their case against Smollett, former Chicago police detective Michael Theis said he initially viewed Smollett as a victim of a homophobic and racist attack and that police “absolutely” didn’t rush to judgment. He said investigators spent days after Smollett’s January 2019 report following up on leads, collecting videos from surveillance cameras, poring over phone records and canvassing the area in sub-zero temperatures, and were excited when they were able to track the movements of two suspected attackers they were looking for.

Actor Jussie Smollett, center, arrives Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for day two of his trial in Chicago.

“The crime was a hate crime, a horrible hate crime,” Theis said, noting Smollett reported his attackers put a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him. He said the case had become national and international news and that “everybody from the mayor on down wanted to know what happened,” a reference to then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Theis also said Smollett declined to provide his medical records related to the attack or a cheek swab so investigators could compare it to DNA that may have been on a rope Smollett said the attackers put around his neck. He also said Smollett told the police that one of his attackers was white, and said he repeated that on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“At the end of the investigation, we determined that the alleged hate crime was actually a staged event,” Theis said.

Defense attorney Nenye Uche said during opening statements late Monday that two brothers attacked Smollett because they didn’t like him and that a $3,500 check the actor paid the men was for training so he could prepare for an upcoming music video. Uche also suggested that a third attacker was involved and told jurors there was not a “shred“ of physical and forensic evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.

“Jussie Smollett is a real victim,” Uche said.

Smollett is charged with felony disorderly conduct for making what prosecutors say was a false police report. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said it’s likely that if Smollett is convicted he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.

Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Smollett’s brother said it has been “incredibly painful” for the family to watch Smollett be accused of something he “did not do.”

“We’re confident in his legal team, and we look forward to people hearing the actual facts of this case,” Jojo Smollett said.

Special prosecutor Dan Webb told jurors Monday that Smollett recruited the brothers, who worked with him on “Empire,” to help him carry out a fake attack because he believed the television studio didn’t take hate mail he had received seriously.

Smollett then reported the alleged attack to Chicago police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 staff hours on the investigation, Webb said. The actor told police he was attacked by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, inflaming political divisions nationwide.

“When he reported the fake hate crime, that was a real crime,” Webb said.

Webb told jurors Smollett was unhappy about how the studio handled the letter, which included a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree and “MAGA,” a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan. Webb said police have not determined who wrote that letter.

However, Uche countered that Smollett turned down extra security when the studio offered it.

Webb said Smollett then “devised this fake crime,” holding a “dress rehearsal” with the two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and “MAGA.” Smollett also told the brothers to buy ski masks, red hats and “a rope to make it look like a hate crime,” Webb told jurors. The brothers used a $100 bill that Smollett gave them to buy the supplies, Webb said.

He said Smollett wanted the hoax attack to be captured on surveillance video, but that the camera he thought would record it was pointed in the wrong direction. He also said the original plan called for the men to throw gasoline on Smollett but that they opted for bleach because it would be safer.

Whether Smollett, who is Black and gay, will testify remains an open question. But the siblings will take the witness stand.

Uche portrayed the brothers as unreliable, saying their story has changed while Smollett’s has not, and that when police searched their home they found heroin and guns.

“They are going to lie to your face,” Uche told the jury.

Uche also said evidence “will show a tremendous rush to judgment by various police officials,” and he said prosecutors’ claim about paying for a fake attack by check doesn’t make sense.

“They want you to believe Jussie was stupid enough to pay for a hoax with a check but was smart enough to pay (for supplies) with a $100 bill,” he said.

As for Uche’s suggestion that another attacker may have been involved, buried in nearly 500 pages of Chicago Police Department reports is a statement from an area resident who says she saw a white man with “reddish brown hair” who appeared to be waiting for someone that night. She told a detective that when the man turned away from her, she “could see hanging out from underneath his jacket what appeared to be a rope.”

Her comments could back up Smollett’s contention that his attackers draped a makeshift noose around his neck. Further, if she testifies that the man was white, it would support Smollett’s statements – widely ridiculed because the brothers are Black – that he saw pale or white skin around the eyes of one of his masked attackers.

The 12 jurors plus two alternates who were sworn in late Monday are expected to be shown surveillance video from more than four dozen cameras that police reviewed to trace the brothers’ movements before and after the reported attack, as well as a video showing the brothers purchasing supplies hours earlier.

Webb told jurors that prosecutors have hundreds of hours of video, and a still shot from a camera near Smollett’s condo that shows him walking up stairs after the alleged attack, with a clothesline around his neck and still carrying the sandwich he bought that evening.