Jussie Smollett, the disgraced actor who portrayed Terry Hall in The Mighty Ducks, is finally standing trial for allegedly staging a hate crime against himself in January 2019. Smollett appeared in a Chicago courtroom on Monday for jury selection. He faces multiple counts of felony disorderly conduct for his role in the alleged hate crime hoax, which was widely and credulously embraced by prominent Democratic politicians at the time.
Smollett maintains his innocence despite the fact that Nigerian brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo told police the actor wrote them a $3,500 check to stage the attack and put a rope around his neck to ensure the incident would be treated as a hate crime. They also claim Smollett mailed a threatening letter to himself one week prior to the staged assault.
The actor, who was in Chicago filming the Fox series Empire, claimed he was attacked by two white men wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and shouting racist and homophobic slurs. Smollett insists he did not lie to police when he reported the attack. His attorney has suggested the Nigerian brothers could have been wearing “whiteface.” Otherwise, the evidence of his involvement in the hoax is overwhelming.
When news of the alleged hate crime broke, prominent Democratic politicians rushed to condemn the actions of the racist Trump supporters who were allegedly roaming the streets of Chicago at 2 a.m. to commit a hate crime against a celebrity of minimal renown. “This was an attempted modern-day lynching,” wrote Kamala Harris, days after announcing her campaign for president. “No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate.”
The Osundairo brothers came forward weeks later, prompting police to investigate Smollett for his role in orchestrating the alleged hate crime. Harris laughed awkwardly and froze up when asked to defend her comments. “Um, uh, OK,” Harris told reporters in February 2019. “I think the facts are still unfolding, and I’m very concerned about obviously the initial allegation that [Smollett] made about what might have happened.” Despite initially rushing to comment before all of the facts were known, Harris said she wouldn’t comment on any other allegations until “the investigation has concluded.”
Joe Biden also rushed to judgment in the immediate aftermath of the incident. “What happened today to Jussie Smollett must never be tolerated in this country,” he wrote. “We must stand up and demand that we no longer give this hate safe harbor; that homophobia and racism have no place on our streets or in our hearts. We are with you, Jussie.” Other presidential hopefuls, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), and then-mayor Pete Buttigieg, released similar statements in support of the actor. Sanders, for example, said the alleged attack was “a horrific instance of the surging hostility toward minorities around the country.”
On a somewhat related note, nearly all of the 2020 Democratic candidates repeatedly expressed concern about the harmful effects of “disinformation.” Alas, little progress has been made on that front, as evidenced by the widespread misunderstanding of the facts of the Kyle Rittenhouse case.
Less than a month after the “attack,” Smollett was indicted on multiple counts of disorderly conduct and filing a false police report. Kim Foxx, the Cook County state’s attorney, subsequently dropped the charges following an intervention by Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, Tina Tchen. Smollett was indicted again on similar charges in February 2020 following widespread public criticism of Foxx’s handling of the case.
Smollett could face several years in prison if convicted, but most observers expect probation would be the most likely outcome of a guilty verdict. The trial is expected to produce some amusing moments as Smollett’s defense team attempts to make their preposterous case of innocence in the face of all evidence. Perhaps they will echo the concerns of a group of celebrities and other left-wing activists who accused Chicago police of having “fabricated” the case against the actor.
Whether Smollett’s career will survive the trial is another question entirely. In the years since the alleged hate crime, the actor has become a punch line for comedians—at least the talented ones who aren’t afraid of being canceled. Dave Chappelle poked fun at Smollett during his 2019 Netflix special Sticks & Stones. “Black people never feel sorry for the police, but this time we even felt sorry for the police,” he said.