Former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett was sentenced to five months in jail on Thursday for concocting a hate crime hoax, in which he lied to police about being jumped by two men who yelled racist and homophobic slurs.
Judge James Linn also ordered Smollett to pay $120,000 restitution to the city of Chicago, plus a $25,000 fine, and to serve 30 months of probation. After the sentence was announced, Smollett stood up and said, “I am innocent and I am not suicidal.” Smollett continued to shout as he was led out of the courtroom and remanded to custody.
Linn delivered a scathing rebuke before rendering the sentence, saying Smollett had taken some “scabs off some healing wounds” because he wanted to make himself more famous.
“You’ve turned your life upside down by your misconduct and shenanigans. You’ve destroyed your life as you knew it,” Linn said. “You wanted to get the attention and you were so invested in issues of social justice, and you knew this was a sore spot for everybody in this country… You were throwing a national pity party for yourself.”
Smollett sat impassively, wearing a mask with his hands crossed at the defense table, as Linn called him a “charlatan,” and said the crime had exposed a side of his personality that is “profoundly arrogant and selfish and narcissistic.”
“You’ve turned yourself from riches to rags,” Linn said. “Your very name has become an adverb for lying.”
Several of Smollett’s supporters had expressed concern for his safety if he were sentenced to a jail term, given the notoriety of his case. Once Linn issued the sentence, Smollett emphatically stated several times that he was not suicidal — and suggested that if he were found dead, it would not be by his own hand. He also continued to maintain his innocence.
“If I did this it means I stuck my fist in the fears of Black Americans for over 400 years in this country, and the fears of the LGBT community,” Smollett said. “If anything happens to me when I go in there, I did not do it to myself, and you must all know that.”
Smollett’s attorneys asked that the jail term be stayed, but Linn denied the request.
Smollett was convicted at a trial in December on five out of six charges of “disorderly conduct,” a Class 4 felony. Many observers predicted he would get probation, because he had a minimal prior record, but the charges carried a maximum of three years in prison.
Dan Webb, the special counsel who prosecuted the case, urged Linn to sentence Smollett to a jail term, and to order restitution and community service. He argued that Smollett’s crime was a serious violation, and that he made it worse by refusing to admit it and by lying on the witness stand.
“He denigrated — degraded true hate crimes,” Webb said. “He marginalized the people who are true victims of hate crimes.”
Nenye Uche, Smollett’s lead defense attorney, argued that he had already paid a $10,000 fine and should not be subjected to further punishment. He warned that a prison term could become a “death sentence” due to COVID-19.
“We all make mistakes, judge,” Uche said. “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.”
Smollett told Chicago police on Jan. 29, 2019, that he was assaulted by men who put a noose around his neck, poured a chemical substance on him, and yelled “This is MAGA Country.” The Chicago Police Department committed significant resources to the subsequent investigation, racking up more than 1,000 hours of overtime, before ultimately concluding that Smollett had paid two brothers — Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo — $3500 to stage the attack.
Smollett was written out of the final season of “Empire” after the hoax was uncovered.
Smollett’s attorneys read letters on Smollett’s behalf from the head of the NAACP, from Black Lives Matter, and from actor Alfre Woodard and Samuel L. Jackson and his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
“It’s incredulous to Sam and to me that this entire criminal situation would exist,” Richardson Jackson wrote. “Please save this young man and allow him to be of service.”
Woodard wrote, “If he is incarcerated, I fear for his safety.”
Several witnesses also took the stand to offer character testimony on Smollett’s behalf, including Rick Daniels, the music director on “Empire,” and Smollett’s 92-year-old grandmother.
“The Jussie I know and love does not match up with the media’s portrayal,” said his grandmother, Mollie Smollett. “I challenge you to do more investigative reporting.”
Jojo Smollett, his older brother, also asked the judge for leniency, and argued that Smollett has already suffered a loss of income and public scorn. Others testified to Smollett’s charitable works.
Before the sentencing, defense attorney Tina Glandian argued that Smollett should be granted a new trial. Linn denied the motion, noting that he had already rejected many of the defense arguments.
The case ignited a firestorm across the country, and particularly in Chicago, where the state’s attorney’s office came under heavy criticism for its initial decision to drop charges against the actor. A special counsel investigation concluded that the prosecutors’ office had committed “substantial abuses of discretion” in its handling of the case.
Charges were refiled only after a retired judge filed a petition seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor. His attorneys argued that he was being subjected to impermissible “double jeopardy.”