Jussie Smollett 'Took Advantage Of The Pain And Anger Of Racism,' Police Say

Feb 21, 2019
Originally published on February 22, 2019 10:53 am

Updated at 10:45 a.m. ET Friday

Weeks after Jussie Smollett reported being assaulted in a potential hate crime, the Empire actor has been released on bail after police questioned him for allegedly orchestrating the attack. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett faked the incident, paying two brothers about $3,500 to join a "publicity stunt" staged by Smollett because he "was dissatisfied with his salary."

"Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career," Johnson said at a news conference Thursday after Smollett's arrest.

"I'm left hanging my head and asking why," he continued. "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? How can an individual who's been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face by making these false claims?"

The Cook County State's Attorney's Office has approved disorderly conduct charges against Smollett for allegedly filing a false police report. If convicted of the felony, he could face up to three years in prison.

Jussie Smollett, seen Thursday after Chicago police took the Empire actor into custody. Authorities say Smollett orchestrated the attack he reported late last month.
Chicago Police Department

Later Thursday, Smollett appeared in court for a hearing during which his bond was set at $100,000. He has not publicly responded since his arrest, but his lawyer, Jack Prior, vowed Thursday to push back against the allegations.

"These are outrageous allegations, but my client vehemently denies all this," the attorney said. "He is not a threat to society, and is not a flight risk. He came back yesterday from out of state, knowing charges were imminent. He surrendered this morning at 5 a.m. and wants nothing more than to clear his name."

Less than a day later, the executive producers behind Empire announced that they plan to write Smollett's character off the program for at least the end of its current season.

"The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us. Jussie has been an important member of our EMPIRE family for the past five years and we care about him deeply. While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out," said Lee Daniels, Danny Strong and their fellow producers, many of whom initially expressed their support for Smollett in the days after the reported attack.

"We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show," they added, "and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of 'Jamal' from the final two episodes of the season."

The arrest Thursday represents something of a surreal twist to a story that first surfaced late last month, when Chicago police revealed that Smollett had reported being assaulted in a possible hate crime. The actor and musician, who is black and gay, said two individuals had accosted him with racist and homophobic slurs, beaten him and placed a rope around his neck before fleeing.

He also said that he had received a threatening letter using racist and homophobic language a week earlier — though police now say that, too, was falsified in an attempt "to gain attention." "When that didn't work," Johnson explained, "Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago's reputation through the mud."

Detective Cmdr. Edward Wodnicki laid out an exhaustive timeline of how police arrived at this conclusion, saying they relied on security footage and tips from the community to identify the two brothers Smollett allegedly enlisted. They had flown to Nigeria shortly after the incident, but authorities were at Chicago O'Hare International Airport waiting to detain them when they returned to the country on Feb. 13.

Johnson said it wasn't until the very end of their interrogation that the brothers decided to confess. "It wasn't until the 47th hour of their 48-hour hold time — that we could legally hold them in custody — that it took a change," Johnson said, adding that it was at that point that the brothers implicated Smollett.

"The brothers agreed to cooperate in the investigation," Risa Lanier, a prosecutor with the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, explained during the bond hearing later. "As more evidence — such as text messages, phone records, social media records, bank records, surveillance video and the receipt from the purchase of the rope — was obtained by investigators, this investigation shifted from a hate crime to disorderly conduct."

Johnson put it more bluntly.

"When we discovered the actual motive, quite frankly, it pissed everybody off — you know, because we have to invest valuable resources."

And he expressed frustration not only at Smollett's conduct but also at the amount of media attention it has received.

Johnson said he is also "concerned" about what Smollett's alleged actions mean for future victims of hate crimes. "My concern," he said, "is that hate crimes will now publicly be met with a level of skepticism that previously didn't happen."

According to statistics recently published by the FBI, there was a 17 percent jump in hate crimes from 2016 to 2017. In a separate study, the Human Rights Campaign reported that last year, 67 percent of 12,000 black LGBTQ youth they surveyed had been verbally insulted because of their identity; 30 percent of those surveyed said they had been physically threatened.

"Our laws exist to reflect and defend [our shared] values, and hate crimes will never be tolerated," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement released Thursday. "A single individual who put their perceived self-interest ahead of these shared principles will never trump Chicago's collective spirit."

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Chicago police say actor Jussie Smollett, the star of the Fox TV series "Empire," faked the hate crime he reported late last month. Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson called the move a publicity stunt.


EDDIE JOHNSON: This announcement today recognizes that "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career. 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?

MARTIN: Jussie Smollett is due in a Chicago courtroom this afternoon. Joining us now, NPR's Colin Dwyer, who's been following developments here.

Colin, how did Chicago police determine this, that Smollett faked what was a very serious, allegedly very gruesome hate crime?

COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: Very serious - and as you heard, the police superintendent came out very strong against Smollett and came out very strong against the media as well and how they've covered this. In the course of this presser, they actually went into a lot of detail about their investigation. They talked about how they first identified two men on a security camera. They traced his path using surveillance footage, using community tips. And that path that they traced took them to a cab first and then on foot and then to a ride-share and then to the airport.

They say that the two men actually flew to Nigeria. But it turns out that they bought a round trip. So, actually, the police and authorities were there waiting for them, the two men, when they arrived back in Chicago on February 13.

MARTIN: And, essentially, police say that Smollett paid these two men - one of whom he had a personal connection with because one of them worked on the show "Empire" - that he paid them to perpetrate this fake hate crime.

DWYER: That's right. And, apparently, they didn't even really determine this until the 47th hour of the 48-hour detainment that they legally had them for. They had been speaking with these two brothers for, virtually, the entirety of that time. And it was only very, very toward the end that the two brothers ultimately came forward and acknowledged this fact.

MARTIN: I mean, it's - this is shocking for so many people, primarily because Jussie Smollett has been such an important voice for the black LGBT community. His character on "Empire" is a black, gay man. He himself is a black, gay man. I mean, do we know why he did this?

DWYER: We don't. The police have a theory. They say that Smollett simply wanted to boost his profile. He wanted to get a higher salary - is what Superintendent Eddie Johnson said. Now, the...

MARTIN: He talked about the salary because he was suggesting that Smollett was trying to raise his profile to boost...

DWYER: That's right.

MARTIN: ...His cred, basically, among the television producers for "Empire." But, you know, at the same time, the police made sure to affirm in this press conference that they took him seriously up until the very last minute, right?

DWYER: That's right. They said from the very beginning, they treated him as a victim. And it was only very recently that things began to change.

MARTIN: I think we've got...


JOHNSON: Smollett was treated as a victim throughout this investigation, until we received evidence that led detectives in another direction.

MARTIN: So, I mean, at this point, what happens now? He's expected in a court later today, right?

DWYER: That's right. So the state's attorney's office has approved charges of disorderly conduct against Smollett. Those charges could carry up to three years in prison, if he happens to be convicted. And that appears to be where we're going from here. Smollett himself has not responded since this presser came out. But before that, his lawyers vowed to mount an aggressive defense of their client. So I suppose we'll just see where things go from here.

MARTIN: It's interesting to note - at the end of the press conference, the superintendent of police was asked what justice looked like. And this is what he had to say.


JOHNSON: Absolute justice would be an apology to this city that he smeared, admitting what he did and then be man enough to offer what he should offer up in terms of all the resources that were put into this.

MARTIN: He says he wants an apology for what he calls a smear on the city.

DWYER: Not only a smear but he says that it was, actually, a slap in the face of the city.

MARTIN: NPR's Colin Dwyer for us. Thanks so much, Colin.

DWYER: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.