Jussie Smollett's life remains in a holding pattern one year after being sentenced to jail time for staging a hate crime against himself.
The Empire actor and musician, who was given a 150-day jail sentence on March 10, 2022 only to be released six days later pending an appeal of the December 2021 conviction, continues to wade through the legal process — now four years after this legal saga began.
Last week, Smollett's legal team, helmed by Nenye E. Uche and Heather A. Widell, filed that appeal in Illinois 1st District Appellate Court, just hours before the final deadline after five extensions. In the March 1 filing, the defense said it's seeking a new trial with a new judge to revisit the events related to the Jan. 29, 2019 hate crime hoax. Smollett, who's Black and gay, paid two brothers to stage a racist and homophobic attack against him on a Chicago street because he wanted attention, according to prosecutors.
Attorneys for Smollett, who maintains his innocence, argued in the appeal that his conviction, on five counts of disorderly conduct for falsely reporting a crime, should be invalid due to double jeopardy concerns. That's because charges of faking the assault were initially brought against Smollett in February 2019 and then dropped two months later by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office citing the TV star's record of community service and agreement to forfeit his $10,000 bond to the city of Chicago. In February 2020, special prosecutor, Daniel K. Webb, was called in to look at the handling of case, over criticism Smollett received special treatment, and a new, six-count indictment was filed. Smollett should have had immunity, his lawyers argued.
Smollett's attorneys also argued that Judge James Linn — who scolded Smollett for over 30 minutes during the sentencing, calling him "profoundly arrogant," "selfish" and a "narcissistic" — was biased against the actor and "excessive" in sentencing. The entertainer — who yelled "I am not suicidal" as he was taken into custody, for fear he would be hurt or worse as an incarcerated gay, Black man accused of lying to police — was also sentenced to 30 months' felony probation, ordered to pay $120,106 of restitution to the city of Chicago and a $25,000 fine.
Smollett's attorneys Uche and Widell have not responded to Yahoo's request for comment about the case, which has gripped the nation from the start, or an update on Smollett. A rep for a crisis PR firm Smollett used said they are no longer working with him.
What happened that night?
Smollett, who resided in Chicago to shoot Fox's Empire, claimed he was picking up food at Subway on Jan. 29, 2019 at 2 a.m., an especially frigid night in the Windy City, when two men wearing ski masks yelled racist and homophobic slurs at him, physically assaulted him, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him. He claimed in a now infamous Good Morning America interview that the attackers, whom he assumed were white, called him "f***ing Empire n*****" and said, "This is MAGA country," a reference to then-President Trump’s infamous campaign slogan. He was on the phone with his manager at the time of the attack, and the manager called the police for Smollett to report the attack.
Political tensions were already inflamed across the country — and on Twitter — as police investigated the alleged attack. Soon, two brothers, Abimbola "Bola" and Olabinjo "Ola" Osundairo, who were acquaintances of the actor, were detained. The men, aspiring actors, later testified that Smollett paid them $3,500 — with $500 more promised — to stage a phony attack that Smollett scripted. Investigators obtained surveillance video showing the brothers buying masks and rope as well as video of Smollett with the brothers doing what they said was a dry run of the attack two days prior.
Prosecutors claimed Smollett, who made his debut as Jamal Lyon on Empire in 2015, had received a threatening letter at work, with a homophobic slur and a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree, prior to allegedly staging the attack and didn't feel his bosses took it seriously. The Osundario brothers testified against him during the trial. Smollett, who testified on his own behalf, was apparently not believable to jurors, who found him guilty of five of the six counts related to falsely reporting a hate crime.
Where are the major players now?
Smollett, who began his career as a child star in films like The Mighty Ducks, was written off Empire and has had no acting roles since this scandal, according to IMDb. After he was released from jail on March 16 amid his appeal, a family spokesperson told CNN "clearly he would like to" return to acting, but at the moment “everything is up in the air."
Smollett — the brother of Lovecraft actress Jurnee Smollett — did release music, however. Right after he was released, on April 11, he dropped the single "Thank You God" with lyrics addressing the case. They included: "Some people searching for fame / Some people chasing that clout / Just remember this / This ain’t that situation / You think I’m stupid enough to kill my reputation? / Just simply to look like a victim / Like it’s something fun / Y’all better look at someone else / You got the wrong one."
In June, his directorial debut, the film B-Boy Blues, which he filmed in 2020 amid his legal drama, debuted on BET+. He hit the red carpet for the premiere — and gave an interview to SiriusXM’s Sway Calloway in which he maintained his innocence. "If I were to do something, it would not be to look like a victim," he said. "It would be to look like, if anything, someone strong." He added that he didn't need "some sort of rise" in his career, "I was on the up and up."
Smollett went on to make several other red carpet appearances last year, including at the BET Awards, as he gears up to release a new album (another single, "Some Things," came out in July) and at the 2022 Atlanta Black Pride Weekend Film Festival, promoting B-Boy Blues.
As for the Osundairo brothers, they're giving their first interview about their involvement in the hoax in Fox Nation's five-part docuseries Jussie Smollett: Anatomy of a Hoax, which airs on March 13. In it, they discuss how Bola — an extra on the set of Empire — became friends with Smollett. They went to clubs and a gay bathhouse together, watched TV at Smollett's and Bolo would also procure things for the star, including marijuana and other "paraphernalia" he declined to specify.
Bola talked about Smollett asking him to fake beat him up, in plans he said Smollett outlined step by step down to the slurs. He agreed because he felt "indebted" to Smollett for getting him screen time on Empire. The brothers would be paid — they received a check for part of it. Bola claimed Smollett planned to leak the attack himself on social media to garner sympathy.
In their new interview, they clear up claims Smollett has made in his testimony — including denying that they tried to extort him for $1 million and that Bola had a sexual relationship with Smollett. In the final episode, the brothers revisit the alleged crime scene — and reenact what they say happened that night. (The pair have a pending defamation lawsuit against one of Smollett's attorneys.)
Others involved with the case — including Eddie T. Johnson, former superintendent of the Chicago Police Department — also revisit the saga for the docuseries.
The Illinois Appellate Court is set to hear Smollett's case this spring with a ruling coming later this year.
Smollett, who remains out of jail for now, has other legal drama pending. He's still being sued by the City of Chicago to recoup the costs incurred investigating the attack. Over two dozen officers and detectives participated in the weeks-long investigation and $130,106.15 was paid in overtime.
As for whether he'll ever be able to rehab his image, Shawn Zanotti who runs Exact Publicity out of L.A. and Chicago tells Yahoo Entertainment that there's always a chance for a celebrity to "bounce back" — and sometimes "the bounce back is stronger than the original stride in their career."
The publicist, who reps Wendy Williams, says it's all about finding "the right project that he can hit off" and then "riding that wave." But first, Zanotti says Smollett has to tell his side of the story. "A lot of times when these types of things happen to celebrities, they think that the right way is just to move forward," but making his case to court of public opinion — especially when people are so opinionated about it, as they are in this case — is key.
No matter what happens, Zanotti, who has helped Williams navigate her ups and downs in recent years, adds, "I think that it's important to mention that it can be tough as a celebrity. This is my opinion as a publicist. It's just so many eyes on you; the weight of the world on your shoulders at times. When something happens," the "scrutiny" comes from so many directions. So "it's important for people to remember that a celebrity is human, just like you" and it doesn't hurt to have some "compassion" as they navigate difficult situations in the public glare.