Jussie Smollett, Once an ‘Empire’ Star, Is Now in the Cook County Jail

It was an extraordinary ending to an unusual hearing.

Jussie Smollett, sentenced to five months in a Chicago jail, stood up, defiantly declared his innocence and repeatedly warned the room that he was notsuicidal and, if anything should befall him while incarcerated, it would not be his own doing.

Then, with his right fist raised, Mr. Smollett was led off to become likely the most famous of the 6,000 inmates at the Cook County Jail.

The jail primarily houses defendants awaiting trial, but also convicts serving shorter sentences, like Mr. Smollett, 39, who was booked into Division 8, a facility that is used to administer medical and mental health treatment, as well as house inmates who require protective custody.

Mr. Smollett has a private cell, which is monitored by security cameras and an officer stationed at the entrance, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. He will be allowed “substantial time” outside of his cell to talk on the phone, watch television and interact with staff members in common areas, but only when other detainees are not present, the office said.

Judge James B. Linn, who presided over the trial at which the actor was convicted of falsely reporting a hate crime, had ordered that Mr. Smollett serve his jail term under protective custody.

Mr. Smollett’s lawyer Nenye Uche had said after Thursday’s hearing that his client was vulnerable and deserved special protective measures. “All you need to do is log onto various media, social media, to see some of the nasty things said about him,” Mr. Uche said. “Of course someone like that should be in protective custody.”

Supporters have said the actor is particularly vulnerable to being targeted because he is a gay man and a recognizable celebrity.

Understand the Jussie Smollett Case

The actor Jussie Smollett was found guilty in December of falsely reporting that he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic assault in 2019.

  • Timeline: The case began with the actor’s police report and led to a trial in which he was accused of staging the attack himself.
  • Smollett’s Testimony: Mr. Smollett was self-deprecating and animated as he sought to convince a Chicago jury he was the victim of a real attack.
  • What the Evidence Shows: Explore some of the documents and security camera footage related to the case.
  • His Sentence: The actor was sentenced to five months in jail on March 10. His supporters had made impassioned pleas for leniency ahead of the sentencing hearing.

In arguing for leniency at the hearing, Mr. Smollett’s lawyers had emphasized evidence of Mr. Smollett’s good character and said they supported his contention of innocence, urging he be given a new trial or, at the least, probation. They did not mention in their arguments a concern about the specific realities of incarceration at the Chicago jail, which some social justice advocates have described as having a “culture of brutality and violence” in the highest security units.

Mr. Smollett’s unit is not among those cited.

Criminal defense experts said they thought the jail would likely do everything it could to isolate Mr. Smollett from other prisoners, considering his fame and potential to disrupt day-to-day activities there, which for many inmates include communal meals in the commissary.

“They’re going to put him wherever they would have the least amount of disruptions to the rest of the facility,” said Steve Greenberg, a defense attorney in Chicago who represents the singer R. Kelly against sex crime charges in Illinois. Mr. Kelly was once held in the division where Mr. Smollett resides.

Mr. Smollett’s lawyers had asked the judge to defer Mr. Smollett’s sentence until after they have appealed his conviction. But Judge Linn swiftly denied their request. In addition to the jail time, Mr. Smollett was sentenced to more than two years of probation, plus a fine of $25,000 and restitution of more than $120,000 to offset the city’s cost in investigating the case.

The maximum sentence allowed for the offense for which Mr. Smollett was charged, felony disorderly conduct, is three years in prison, but many of those convicted are given probation. Judge Linn cited several factors, including Mr. Smollett’s testimony on the witness stand, which the judge described as “pure perjury,” in explaining why he ordered some jail time.

Sam Mendenhall, a prosecutor on the case, said on Friday that he believed Mr. Smollett would not have the option of reducing his jail time for good behavior because Judge Linn ordered it as a condition of probation.

Mr. Smollett in a photo taken after he was incarcerated Thursday. He was sentenced to five months at the Cook County jail. Credit…Cook County Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on Thursday that Mr. Smollett would receive a “comprehensive medical, mental health and security assessment.” Mr. Smollett’s sentencing hearing at Leighton Criminal Courthouse was unusual in its length — about five hours — and its intensity, with the defense, the prosecution and even the judge making impassioned speeches about the case.

Mr. Smollett’s supporters, including his 92-year-old grandmother and his former boss at a nonprofit organization, made glowing remarks about his commitment to social justice as they pleaded for leniency.

In his own extensive remarks, Judge Linn took another tack, sharply condemning Mr. Smollett as a narcissistic attention seeker who wasted precious police hours with his “stunt” and made it more difficult for real hate crime victims to be taken seriously.

“Your very name has become an adverb for lying,” Judge Linn said. “And I cannot imagine what could be worse than that.”

Mr. Uche later said he was “offended” by the remarks, and outside the courtroom, one of Mr. Smollett’s brothers, Jocqui Smollett, sharply criticized the judge.

“He chastised my brother,” Mr. Smollett said. “He does not deserve this. He was attacked.”

Cook County Jail has drawn criticism for conditions in some of its units, but Mr. Smollett will be held in protective custody by order of the judge who sentenced him. Credit…Kamil Krzaczynski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The police believed initially that Mr. Smollett, best known for starring in the music-industry drama “Empire,” had been the victim of a hate crime when he reported on Jan. 29, 2019, that he had been attacked by two men who hurled racist and homophobic slurs at him, put a rope around his neck like a noose and shouted “this is MAGA country.” But prosecutors presented evidence that Mr. Smollett had orchestrated the hoax himself, including testimony from two brothers, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, who said they had mildly assaulted Mr. Smollett according to his directions.

The defense had argued that the brothers carried out the attack to scare Mr. Smollett into hiring them as his security detail. Mr. Smollett’s appeal is likely to follow the arguments raised by his lawyers Thursday, in which they cited what they described as errors by the judge and the prosecutors, and suggested Mr. Smollett’s case had already been adjudicated once and he could not be punished twice — a violation of the legal concept of double jeopardy.

In 2019, when prosecutors dropped the original charges, Mr. Smollett did some community service and surrendered his $10,000 bond payment, punishment that seemed insufficient to some critics.

Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney whose office negotiated that initial outcome, sharply criticized the prosecutors who handled the second indictment in an op-ed for The Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday, calling it a “kangaroo prosecution” and “mob justice.” (After an investigation of Ms. Foxx’s office, Daniel K. Webb, the special prosecutor who handled the case, found the office had abused its discretion, but did not violate the law, in deciding to drop the charges.)

Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago, struck a very different tone, saying in a statement that the city had been “vindicated” by the judge’s sentence.

Mr. Webb said after the sentencing that he was struck by the extent to which Mr. Smollett was unwilling to express any remorse for the damage he had done.

“Again today,” he said, “after he’s been convicted by a jury of five felony counts, after he heard a judge today excoriate his conduct as being reprehensible, he still stood up in the courtroom and insisted that he’s not going to ever admit or accept any responsibility for what he did.”

Back to top button