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Is Jussie Smollett Guilty?

I don’t practice criminal law but I can’t help but to dabble in some current news. Since I also live near Chicago, this has become sort of local news to me as well.

The Curious Case of Jussie Smollett

On March 14, 2019, “Empire” act Jussie Smollett pleaded “not guilty” on charges that he staged a hate-crime attack against himself in Cook County, Chicago, Illinois. In case you are not aware, Smollett, who is black and gay, told police that he was attacked by two men as he walked to his Streeterville apartment around 2 a.m. that morning. He claimed that his assailants hurled racist and homophobic attacks at home, punched him, and wrapped a noose around his neck. After the attackers, who are brothers, were caught and were in custody for 48 hours, they told police that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to carry out the attack as a hoax in order to raise Smollett’s street cred.

A grand jury has indicted Smoll ett for various counts of disorderly conduct regarding his false statements to detectives. So what is disorderly conduct? The Illinois statute 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. § 26-1 et. seq. lays out several categories of disorderly conduct but the most relevant one is probably:

Transmits or causes to be transmitted in any manner to any peace officer, public officer or public employee a report to the effect that an offense will be committed, is being committed, or has been committed, knowing at the time of the transmission that there is no reasonable ground for believing that the offense will be committed, is being committed, or has been committed ; see 720 ILCS 5/26-1a (1)(4)

That particular section is a Class 4 Felony punishable by a minimum of one year in prison but no more than three years.

What Does the State Need to Prove Its Case Against Jussie Smollett?

The State just needs to prove two things: 1) That Smollett gave a false reports to the police and detectives and 2) He knew it was false at the time he reported it. Right now, the State has video surveillance of Smollett being attacked by two men that, according to the purported attackers, were paid to carry out the attack. The State also has a check from Smollett to the attackers for $3,500. Although that sounds like an open-and-shut case, there are potential holes in the State’s case against Smollett. First of all, the attackers stated that Smollett paid them to carry out after being in custody for 48 hours.

Frankly, their credibility is not very good because the alternative story is that the attackers in fact committed a crime. In other words, these attackers-as-witnesses have a conflict of interest and will benefit from claiming that they were paid to carry out the attack. Another potential hole in the State’s case that provides other reasons for Smollett writing a check to the attackers is that they were providing nutrition and exercise services. There are apparently also text messages between Smollett and the attackers that support the reason for Smollett writing the check. Given these two angles, this case does not appear as simple as it initially sounds and only a trial could fully demonstrate whether Smollett is guilty of making false statements to the police about the attack.

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