Former Empire star Jussie Smollett is “a real victim” of a “real crime”, his lawyer said as the US actor’s trial got under way in Chicago.
Prosecutors say Smollett staged a homophobic and racist attack in Chicago in January 2019.
Special prosecutor Dan Webb told jurors during opening statements on Monday that Smollett recruited two brothers – who worked with him on the TV show – to help him carry out a fake attack because he believed the television studio did not take hate mail he had received seriously.
But the actor had claimed he was walking home when masked men approached him, made racist and homophobic remarks, beat him and looped a noose around his neck before fleeing.
Smollett then reported the alleged attack to Chicago police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 staff hours on the investigation, Mr Webb said.
The actor told police he was attacked by supporters of then-president Donald Trump – igniting political divisions around the country.
“When he reported the fake hate crime that was a real crime,” Mr Webb said.
But Smollett’s lawyer Nenye Uche said the two brothers attacked Smollett because they didn’t like him and that a $3,500 (£2,600) cheque the actor paid the men was for training so he could prepare for an upcoming music video.
Mr Uche also suggested a third attacker was involved and told jurors there is not a “shred ” of physical and forensic evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.
“Jussie Smollett is a real victim,” Mr Uche said.
Smollett, who is openly gay, arrived at court with his mother and other family members. He is charged with felony disorderly conduct.
The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
Mr Webb told jurors Smollett was unhappy about how the studio handled a letter he received that included a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree and “MAGA” – a reference to Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan.
Mr Webb said police have not determined who wrote that letter. However, Mr Uche told the court Smollett had turned down extra security when the studio offered it.
Mr Webb said Smollett then “devised this fake crime” holding a “dress rehearsal” with the two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and “MAGA”.
Smollett also told the brothers to buy ski masks, red hats and “a rope to make it look like a hate crime,” Mr Webb told jurors.
He said Smollett wanted the attack captured on surveillance video, but the camera he thought would record the hoax was pointed in the wrong direction. He also said the original plan called for the men to throw petrol on Smollett but that they opted for bleach instead because it would be safer.
Mr Uche portrayed the brothers as unreliable, saying their story has changed while Smollett’s has not, and that when police searched their home they found heroin and guns.
“They are going to lie to your face,” Mr Uche told the jury.
He also said evidence “will show a tremendous rush to judgement by various police officials”, adding that prosecutors’ claims about paying for a fake attack by cheque didn’t make sense.
“At the end of the day they want you to believe Jussie was stupid enough to pay for a hoax with a cheque but was smart enough to pay (for supplies) with a $100 bill,” he said.
The trial continues.