Smollett defense questions credibility of star state witness

Don Babwin and Sara Burnett
Associated Press

Chicago – Jussie Smollett’s legal team on Thursday worked to dent the credibility of a star state witness who the day before testified that the former “Empire” actor recruited him and his brother to stage a racist, homophobic attack.

Defense attorney Shay Allen asked Abimbola Osundairo, who worked on the set of “Empire” with Smollett, if he sold drugs to the actor and about guns found in Osundairo’s home when police searched it. Osundairo said he got drugs for Smollett when the actor asked him to but added “I’m not a drug dealer, I don’t sell.”

Actor Jussie Smollett, center, arrives with family Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on day four of his trial in Chicago.

Casting doubts on Osundairo’s testimony won’t be easy because much of what the aspiring actor told jurors from the stand on Wednesday appears to be corroborated by video and other evidence.

Osundairo testified that Smollett instructed him and his brother in advance on how they should carry out the Jan. 29, 2019, hoax. Smollett also planned a “dry run” and gave him a $100 bill to buy supplies, Osundairo said.

Osundairo told jurors that Smollett instructed him to punch the actor but “not too hard.” Once he was on the ground, Osundairo said Smollett said he should give him “a bruise” and “give him a noogie” – or rub his knuckles hard on Smollett’s head.

Osundairo, who worked as a stand-in on “Empire,” said he and his brother agreed because he felt indebted to Smollett for helping him with his acting career.

Smollett, 39, is charged with six counts of felony disorderly conduct for making what prosecutors say was a false police report – one count for each time he gave a report – to three different officers. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said if Smollett is convicted he likely would be placed on probation and ordered to perform community service.

Osundairo testified that he and his brother had difficulty identifying a good spot for the staged attack, walking around in the early morning of that Jan. 29 in weather that Osundairo described as “colder than penguin feet.”

Abimbola Osundairo, right, prays with his brother Olabinjo Osundairo, center, a bodyguard, left, and their attorney Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez, upon their arrival at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on day four of actor Jussie Smollett's trial Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, in Chicago.

According to Osundario, when the brothers spotted Smollett at around 2 a.m., Osundairo – as instructed earlier by Smollett – shouted a homophobic slur and his brother yelled, “this is MAGA country,” an apparent reference to then-President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.”

After punching Smollett in the face and throwing the actor to the ground, they put a noose around his neck and threw bleach on him, then ran away, Osundairo told jurors.

The next morning, as news broke of a hate crime against Smollett, Osundairo said he texted a note of condolence to Smollett, also as instructed. It read: “Bruh, say it ain’t true. I’m praying for speedy recovery.”

Osundairo testified that Smollett gave him a check for $3,500 and wrote on it that it was for a nutrition and workout program. But Osundairo said the money was both for the program and for helping to stage the attack.

A defense attorney told jurors during openings that Smollett was a “real victim” and that the brothers’ accounts are unreliable.

Before Jan. 29, 2019, Osundairo said Smollett sent him a text message asking to meet up “on the low,” which he took to mean a secret meeting. Osundairo said it was then that Smollett first asked him “to fake beat him up” and asked if his brother could help. Osundairo said he was “confused” and “puzzled” by the request.

Smollett said a camera in the area would record the attack, and that he wanted to use the recording for media purposes, Osundairo testified.

Also Wednesday, Chicago police detective Kimberly Murray, who interviewed Smollett the morning of the attack, said he told her he had received a threatening phone call days earlier, but he refused to hand over his cellphone, which the detective said could help police piece together a timeline. She said Smollett also wouldn’t consent to giving medical records or a DNA swab.

Murray also said Smollett told her he had been assaulted by two men – one white and wearing a ski mask, the other he couldn’t see – as he returned home after buying a sandwich.

A lead investigator in the case testified Tuesday that police tracked down the Osundairo brothers, who are Black, using surveillance video and taxi and ride-share records. When taken into custody, the siblings detailed for police how Smollett orchestrated the fake attack.

A detective who interviewed Smollett after the brothers had been arrested said Smollett then started to change his story. Smollett told detective Robert Graves that the attacker had “pale skin,” when he previously said the attacker was white.

Graves also told Smollett that the brothers were in custody for the hate crime.

“He said, ‘It can’t be them, they’re Black as sin,’” Graves recounted, saying he took that to mean the brothers have very dark skin.

Graves testified that during the Feb. 14 interview, Smollett said he would sign a complaint against the brothers, though his attorney stopped him. About 90 minutes later, Smollett sent one of the brothers a text message, Graves said.

“I know 1000% you and your brother did nothing wrong and never would,” the text read.

Graves said he concluded Smollett had lied to him.

Defense attorney Nenye Uche has said the brothers attacked Smollett, who is Black and gay, “because of who he is” and has suggested that the brothers were homophobic.

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Associated Press writer Michael Tarm contributed to this report.