Jussie Smollett walked out of a Chicago prison on Wednesday night. An appeals court earlier cleared the way for his release, ordering the actor be released from jail after posting a personal recognizance bond of $150,000, and pending the appeal of his conviction for lying to police about a racist and homophobic attack.
The former “Empire” actor was surrounded by security as he exited the Cook County Jail. He did not comment as he got into an awaiting SUV, but his attorneys said he was the target of a racist justice system and people playing politics.
Smollett’s attorneys had argued that he would have completed the sentence by the time the appeal process was completed and that Smollett could be in danger of physical harm if he remained in jail.
Smollett defense attorney Nenye Uche, speaking to reporters outside the jail after Smollett left, said the Smollett family is “very very happy with today’s developments.” Uche said during his time at the jail, Smollett had not eaten and drank only water, though he did not say why.
He criticized the special prosecutor’s decision to charge Smollett again after the initial charges were dropped by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and he paid a fine. He also called Judge James Linn’s sentence excessive for a low-level felony, adding that the appellate court doesn’t “play politics.”
“The real question is: Should Black men be walked into jail for a class 4 felony? Shame on you if you think they should,” Uche said.
The office of the special prosecutor called the claim that Smollett’s health and safety were at risk “factually incorrect,” in a response to his motion, noting that Smollett was being held in protective custody at the jail.
Last week, Linn sentenced Smollett to 30 months felony probation, including 150 days in jail, for lying to police about an alleged hate crime in 2019. Smollett was convicted in December of five counts of lying to police about the attack but has maintained throughout his extensive legal battles that it was real.
He faced up to three years in prison for each of the five felony counts. After his sentencing, Linn sent him straight to the Cook County Jail, and ordered him to pay $120,106 restitution to the city of Chicago in addition to the maximum $25,000 fine. The judge also denied a motion to reconsider Smollett’s sentence or temporarily stay his jail sentence while his counsel filed an appeal.
“The wheels of justice turn slowly but sometimes the hammer of justice has to fall and it’s falling right now,” Linn said. “I’m not staying this.”
In court on Thursday, Linn spent a significant amount of time addressing the defendant, saying his case has received an “unprecedented” amount of attention, the kind he’s only seen for murder trials.
“Let me tell you Mr. Smollett, I know that there is nothing that I will do here today that can come close to the damage you’ve already done to your own life,” he said. “You’ve turned your life upside down by your misconduct and shenanigans, you’ve destroyed your life as you knew it, and there’s nothing that any sentencing judge could do to you that can compare to the damage you’ve already caused yourself.”
At another point, the judge excoriated Smollett’s behavior, saying, “You’re just a charlatan pretending to be a victim of a hate crime, and that’s shameful.”
Linn also called Smollett “profoundly arrogant and selfish and narcissistic,” saying he had done “real damage” to actual victims of hate crimes. But he reiterated that his sentence was not chosen to assuage public outcry but was based on Smollett’s priors, testimony and the response from social justice titans who spoke on Smollett’s behalf.
“You knew this was a country that was slowly trying to heal past injustices and current injustices and trying to make a better future for each other,” he said. “And it was a hard road and you took some scabs off some healing wounds and you ripped them apart for one reason: You wanted to make yourself more famous, and for a while it worked.”
“You were actually throwing a national pity party for yourself,” Linn continued.
Smollett exited the courtroom with a raised fist held high in the air.
“I am innocent, and I am not suicidal,” Smollett said, after initially refusing to speak during the sentencing. “If I did this, then it means that I stuck my fist in the fears of Black Americans in this country for over 400 years and the fears of the LGBT community. Your honor, I respect you and I respect the jury. But I did not do this, and I am not suicidal — and if anything happens to me when I go in there, I did not do it to myself. And you must all know that. I respect you, your honor, and I respect your decision.”
On January 29, 2019, the actor, who is Black and gay, told Chicago police he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack. He claimed two men followed him down a street late at night, yelling slurs before tossing an “unknown chemical substance” on him and placing a noose around his neck.
But during the trial, police and prosecutors alleged that Smollett paid brothers Abel and Ola Osundairo $3,500 to stage the attack. The brothers testified that Smollett asked them to carry out a fake attack.
During Thursday’s sentencing, Smollett’s defense team reiterated their request to have his conviction thrown out or declared a mistrial, based on a previous Cook County prosecutor’s promise in 2019 to drop his original charges. Defense attorney Tina Glandian argued Smollett’s re-prosecution was a violation of Smollett’s rights and said several mistakes were made during the trial.
Prosecutors pushed back against the defense team’s claims, calling them “finger-pointing and scapegoating.”
Linn denied the request for a new trial, saying, “The only crime that was at play in this entire scenario was the false police report.”
The prosecution also read a victim impact statement from the Chicago Police Department, which claimed Smollett’s false report took money and time from the department that could have been used to solve crimes and harmed “real” victims of hate crimes. The department also requested $130,106 in restitution from Smollett for the cost of the investigation.
Smollett’s defense provided several key witnesses that spoke to Smollett’s character as well as his impact as an actor and role model in the African American community.
“He is a very loving and caring young man,” former “Empire” music director Rich Daniels said on the stand, describing how Smollett gave back to the Chicago community, including visiting students in local schools. “I just think the world of him.”
Smollett’s older brother Joel Smollett also read a statement pleading for leniency on Smollett’s behalf, saying, “Jussie should not be incarcerated. He has always been a loyal, loving, and creative human being. He is not a threat to the people of Illinois.”
Smollett’s 92-year-old grandmother also spoke on his behalf, crediting her Jewish heritage as a reason why Smollett and his family were focused on social justice. She addressed the judge directly, asking him to send her to jail alongside Smollett if he is incarcerated.
Following statements from his friends and brother, Smollett, sitting next to his counsel, appeared to wipe away tears.
Counsel for Smollett then read letters from organizations Black Lives Matter, the Innocence Project and Rainbow Push; Rev. Jesse Jackson; actor Samuel L. Jackson and actress Alfre Woodard. The letters spoke to Smollett’s character and asked the judge to give him probation instead of jail time.
Smollett categorically denied police and prosecutors’ allegations that he staged the attack.
While on the stand, the 39-year-old actor said that the $3,500 the brothers claimed they were paid to stage the attack was actually a payment for several training sessions and an illegal herbal supplement from Nigeria, CBS Chicago reported.
“There was no hoax,” he told the jury. “Not one iota of information has changed.”
Smollett’s defense team painted Ola Osundairo as homophobic, suggesting that as a motive for the brothers to really attack Smollett.
Smollett also testified that he and Abel Osundairo once kissed in a bathhouse. Abel denied ever having a sexual relationship with Smollett but told police that he agreed to help the actor with the attack because he thought Smollett would help him with his acting career.
The prosecution highlighted evidence from police, which included footage of Smollett’s car picking Abel up days before the incident and driving to where the attack was reported. Smollett said he and Abel often used drugs together, but police alleged that the meetup was a “dry run” for the attack, according to CBS Chicago.
Prosecutor Dan Webb also reiterated his doubts about Smollett’s testimony, arguing that he would not have gone out to buy eggs at 2 a.m. on one of the coldest nights of the year and that the Osundairo brothers would not have been able to ambush him unless they knew his exact location. “They knew where he was going to be because they were told where to be,” he said.