A Cook County judge scolded Jussie Smollett as he set bond Thursday at $100,000 on charges that the “Empire” actor staged an attack on himself, falsely claiming that two men called him slurs while placing a noose around his neck and beating him last month in downtown Chicago.
“The most vile and despicable part of it, if it’s true, is the noose,” said Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr., who is black. “That symbol conjures up such evil in this country’s history.”
Smollett, 36, was released from Cook County Jail about 3:45 p.m. after a friend in California posted the necessary $10,000 cash, court records show. He then reported to the "Empire" production studios on the West Side. Cast members and crew are trying to wrap up shooting on the final episodes of Season 5.
Thursday night, a statement from Smollett’s legal team called the allegations part of “an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system.”
“The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr. Smollett and notably, on the eve of a mayoral election,” the statement said. “Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”
While Fox initially was steadfast in its support of the actor, saying earlier this week he is a “consummate professional on set” and would not be written off the show, the network was more subdued Thursday, releasing a statement saying simply, “We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process. We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
In court, an attorney for Smollett, Jack Prior, said in court that the actor “vehemently denies” the allegations and that the charged conduct was “inconsistent with Mr. Smollett’s character.” Prior said Smollett does extensive charity work, does not pose a safety threat and will not flee the jurisdiction. “He wants nothing more than to clear his name,” Prior said.
Hours earlier, Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson spoke in anger when describing the allegations.
Johnson said Smollett faked a threatening letter and then, a week later, staged the attack because he was “dissatisfied with his salary” on “Empire.”
Smollett paid two brothers he knew $3,500 to fake the attack in the 300 block of East North Water Street around 2 a.m. Jan. 29, Johnson said, striking him a few times and putting a noose around his neck in front of a camera they erroneously thought caught the act. The superintendent called the scheme “shameful” and wondered how an African-American could set up a racist attack for a “publicity stunt.”
“First, Smollett attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter that relied on racial, homophobic and political language,” Johnson said. “When that didn’t work, Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud in the process. … This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary. So he concocted a story about being attacked.”
When investigators figured out the real motive behind the attack, “quite frankly, it pissed everybody off,” Johnson said.
“It’s just despicable,” he said. “It makes you wonder what’s going on in someone’s mind to be able to do something like that. … I’m left hanging my head and asking why? Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?”
Johnson began his news conference by looking out at the crowded room of reporters at police headquarters and noting, “I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.”
Smollett surrendered to Chicago police around 5 a.m. Thursday on a felony charge of disorderly conduct alleging he made a false police report. Smollett, 36, turned himself in at the Central District police station at 1718 S. State St., flanked by four or five people, according to police spokesman Thomas Ahern, who was present during the surrender. “He was very quiet and didn’t say anything,” Ahern said. “He went with detectives and they booked him.”
If convicted, Smollett faces up to three years in prison and could be ordered to pay for the cost of the investigation, which involved more than 20 detectives over three weeks.
What led to the arrest
Area Central Cmdr. Edward Wodnicki, who led the investigation, said police and private surveillance cameras were critical to tracing the movements of the brothers and giving detectives a break in the case. He said the brothers’ use of a taxi and a ride-share service were also tracked by detectives. Wodnicki said about 50 subpoenas and search warrants were issued, and social media and video were reviewed.
Detectives learned the brothers had left for Nigeria after the reported attack and that they were coming back Feb. 13. They were then arrested and the probe began to “spin” in a new direction, he said. The two testified before a Cook County grand jury Wednesday, hours before charges against Smollett were announced. “I’m told they did an excellent job,” Wodnicki said.
The brothers’ attorney, Gloria Schmidt, declined to give much detail about the evidence presented to grand jurors. She did say her clients got money from Smollett and that she believes they were in contact with the actor at least once after the attack was reported. The Tribune is not identifying the brothers because they have not been charged with a crime.
Schmidt urged Smollett to come clean.
“I think that Jussie’s conscience is probably not letting him sleep right now, so I think that he should unload that conscience and just come out and tell the American people what actually happened,” the attorney said.
Smollett’s attorneys released a statement saying that “like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked. Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
Smollett is represented by local attorneys Prior, Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson as well as high-profile Los Angeles-based lawyer Mark Geragos, who has represented celebrities including pop star Michael Jackson, R&B singer Chris Brown and actress Winona Ryder.
Smollett, who is African-American and openly gay, has said he was walking from a Subway sandwich shop to his apartment in the 300 block of East North Water Street around 2 a.m. Jan. 29 when two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him and placed a noose around his neck. Smollett said they also yelled, “This is MAGA country!” referring to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
Chicago police initially launched a hate crime investigation, but as it progressed, some police sources privately expressed doubts after finding little, if any, corroborating evidence or video of a crime. Police did release an image of two men seen in the area of Smollett’s building around the same time, but it was blurry and dark. Smollett said his music manager was on the phone with him at the time and would support his story, but the actor refused to turn over his full phone records, instead handing police redacted records.
Police say the case began to close in on Smollett last week when detectives took the two brothers, 25 and 27, into custody after they were captured by surveillance cameras in the area around the time of the incident. The brothers were arrested at O’Hare International Airport, and police raided their North Side town home.
Last Friday, police called them “potential suspects” but then released them 12 hours later.
The shift in the investigation’s focus came amid often bitter public debate and stinging skepticism on social media — doubts that Smollett addressed in a national TV interview and in a strongly worded statement after the brothers were released.
Days after Smollett reported the attack, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that he had seen a story about it and “it doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.” But the day after Smollett was charged with making it up, Trump complained that the actor had used his MAGA slogan to cast his attackers as racist. “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?” he tweeted.
Meanwhile, there is also a federal investigation into the letter that remains pending, though Johnson said the letter was fake too.
A week before the alleged attack, Smollett told police he received the threatening letter at work. Witnesses told police a postal worker dropped off the letter at the Chicago studio where “Empire” is filmed. It was postmarked in southwest suburban Bedford Park on Jan. 18 and bore two American flag stamps. The letters “MAGA” were written in the upper-left corner of the envelope.
At the end of his news conference, Johnson was asked what justice would mean in this case.
“Absolute justice would be an apology to the city he smeared,” the superintendent said. “Now, our city has problems. We know that. But to put the national spotlight on Chicago for something that is both egregious and untrue is simply shameful.”
Johnson told reporters Smollett’s actions were particularly harmful to legitimate hate crime victims in the city.
“The Chicago Police Department will continue to investigate all reports of these type of incidents with the same amount of vigor as we did with this one,” the superintendent said. “My concern is that hate crimes will now be publicly met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.”