9 Mar 2019

Chicago grand jury charges US actor Jussie Smolett over hate hoax

2:20 pm on 9 March 2019

A grand jury in Chicago has returned 16 charges against US actor Jussie Smollett, accusing him of falsely claiming to police that he had been the victim of a hate crime.

Jussie Smollett turned himself into the Chicago Police Department.

Jussie Smollett turned himself into the Chicago Police Department. Photo: AFP / Chicago Police Department

Prosecutors had previously charged him with one count of filing a false report.

The 36-year-old African-American actor told police he had been the victim of a homophobic and racist assault.

Police say he staged the attack because he was "dissatisfied" with his salary.

Last month he was suspended from the Empire TV show he starred in.

Sources told NBC and CNN Mr Smollett had apologised to the cast for any embarrassment caused by the incident but maintained his innocence.

What is Jussie Smollett accused of?

Mr Smollett is accused of paying two brothers to stage the attack. Chicago officials also believe that he sent a racist and homophobic letter to himself at a Fox studio beforehand.

At an earlier hearing, a judge set the actor's bail at $100,000.

Mr Smollett, who was pictured outside the courthouse after posting bail, denies the charge of felony disorderly conduct.

His lawyers have said they will "mount an aggressive defence" of Mr Smollett, who they described as "a young man of impeccable character".

What did he say happened?

Mr Smollett said two white men hurled racist and homophobic insults at him when he went out late at night to buy food from a Subway sandwich shop in Chicago on 29 January.

He said they then punched him, poured a potentially chemical substance over him and put a rope around his neck - a reference to racist lynchings of African-Americans.

He also claimed the men said "this is Maga country" during the assault, a reference to President Donald Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again".

How has the case unfolded?

Officers began to grow suspicious when they were unable to find any footage of the incident, despite reviewing more than 50 surveillance cameras. There were also no witnesses.

But investigators say they managed to use a ride-sharing app to track and identify two brothers who were filmed near the scene.

The men, Ola and Abel Osundairo, flew to Nigeria after the alleged attack. On their return they were held for almost 48 hours.

Officials said they were released without charge after providing information that "shifted the trajectory of the investigation".

One of the brothers is Mr Smollett's personal trainer, and both had worked as extras on Empire.

Police say they have a cheque, signed by Mr Smollett, which showed that he had agreed to pay the brothers $3500.

Chicago PD Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Mr Smollett told at least one of the brothers that he was "dissatisfied" with his salary on the show. According to the Huffington Post, he was being paid $65,000 per episode for his starring role.

In a press conference, Supt Johnson called the alleged scheme "shameful", adding: "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?"

He also accused Mr Smollett of taking "advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career".

Mr Smollett turned himself in shortly afterwards.