It had long seemed too bizarre to believe, and indeed Jussie Smollett’s jurors didn’t believe it.
After only a day of deliberations, they convicted him on five out of six counts involving filing a false police report about a fake hate crime.
The verdict wrapped up over a week of testimony, evidence and arguments that defined one of the biggest celebrity trials in memory. After nearly three years of speculation, the breakout star of Empire has seen his career fall apart before his eyes in a fashion worthy of his old show and now he’s been convicted in the court of law along with the court of public opinion. Whether he is sentenced to jail time or not (which appears to be unlikely given that he didn’t previously have a criminal record), there’s no doubt what this means for his reputation in the industry and beyond.
With the verdict now rendered, one has to ask: How did we get here? What went wrong?
The answer is simple: Smollett’s massive ego underestimated the power of his celebrity and the political climate we are currently in.
If Smollett was an average Joe, I doubt his hate crime would have been given the same level of resources, attention, and energy that those Chicago cops gave him in 2019. Speaking from experience, I have many friends who have been the subject of all-too-real racist, homophobic, and transphobic attacks who never even got an update from police after reporting what actually happened to them.
But Smollett, who was getting paid $500,000 an episode in his final season on Empire, was a high-profile celebrity and the hate crime he said he was the victim of made international headlines.
That made everything and everyone take notice instantly – and for that, the Chicago Police Department was put in a position to perform in ways they’ve notoriously been lacking elsewhere. It was fascinating to see how quickly they were able to track down information and details pertaining to this rich and famous person’s claims in ways that we often don’t see in cases involving everyday people.
At the time, Smollett appeared to have basked in the attention and publicity, flexing before a packed L.A. concert shortly after the alleged attack.
“And above all, I fought the fuck back,” he said to cheers during the show. “I’m the gay Tupac.”
Everyone—from then-presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders—to myself, instantly poured out support and concern for him. It was too hard to believe that any of this could be made up, because what kind of person would do something like this?
And then things started not to add up, Smollett began to act suspiciously, and we all found out that the actor was connected to the two Osundairo brothers who jurors believe were paid $3,500 to attack him with bleach and a noose—and everything came crashing down.
What Smollett failed to account for was that given his star power, police were actually going to do something for him that they don’t for many typical civilians—their job. And that meant going back and reviewing all of the footage, looking through every nook, and getting to the bottom of this bizarre incident. What was unearthed was a crock of bullshit that wasted tons of money and time that could have been put to better use.
Only a celebrity with a massive ego could think they are worth this sort of societal fiasco. Sadly, the defense failed to make a strong case why Smollett’s ego wasn’t the cause of all of this.
Throughout his testimony, Smollett came off as arrogant, often refusing to answer “yes” or “no” to important questions. His claim that he doesn’t trust the police as a Black man was credible (trust me, I can relate), but fell short when taking into consideration that he chose to file a police report in the first place—only to then refuse to cooperate in solving the hate crime he’d alleged and gotten everyone up in arms around.
A lot of this didn’t make sense, because it was never meant to. It’s hard not to now see that Smollett never ever wanted this to blow up into a police investigation, but only to generate headlines in which he could be a victim and get attention without the burden of proving harm.
All of this made him appear guilty of a publicity stunt. If Smollett didn’t want the attention, he would have never FaceTimed his Empire producer Lee Daniels with a bruised face while hospitalized (which is how the public first learned of the actor’s incident). He would not have made live appearances boasting about being the “gay Tupac.” He would never have thought it was a good idea to do an interview with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America and lie on national television (he told Roberts he never took the noose off of his neck, the trial revealed he did).
Overall, I don’t believe jail time is the proper course for Smollett—but therapy and a long sabbatical from the cult of celebrity. It’s obvious that regardless of his intentions, Smollett had a drug problem that he wanted to keep secret prior to the trial and some other deep trust issues that jail time won’t fix.
He’s not acknowledging the issues now. Rather, his lawyer said after the verdict came in that Smollett is “100% innocent” and confident “he’s going to be cleared of all, all accusations on all charges” on appeal—that “at the end of the day, what’s out there in the news media and in the gossip forums are not going to stand a chance in court.”
But when jurors gave their verdict on Thursday, it did stand up in court. One day we’ll get the full truth, hopefully sooner rather than later.