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Jussie Smollett Trial Begins With Jury Selection

Jury selection began on Monday in the trial of Jussie Smollett, the actor who nearly three years ago reported he had been the victim of a hate crime in Chicago, setting off a wave of public fury that quickly turned into accusations that it all had been a hoax.

When Mr. Smollett reported in January 2019 that two men, yelling racist and homophobic slurs, had beaten him, he had primarily been known for his role in the music-industry television drama “Empire.” He later lost that role after being indicted on charges that he had lied to the police, who concluded that he had paid two brothers to stage the attack.

Mr. Smollett is now standing trial on six counts of felony disorderly conduct associated with the reports he had made to the police. The grand-jury indictment asserts he had “no reasonable ground for believing that such an offense had been committed.”

Mr. Smollett entered the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago around 9 a.m. on Monday, exiting a black S.U.V. and clutching the arm of his mother, Janet Smollett.

In 2019, Mr. Smollett’s account of being attacked while on a late-night run to pick up a tuna sandwich struck a chord in a politically divided nation confronting the persistent threat of racism.

The actor told the police his attackers poured bleach on him, placed a rope around his neck and yelled “this is MAGA country,” a reference to former President Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan.

Lawmakers, activists and celebrities reacted furiously to the incident, but the dialogue shifted abruptly in February 2019, when the police told the public that Mr. Smollett had paid two men $3,500 to stage the attack. The police said they had a copy of the check as well as phone records showing that Mr. Smollett spoke to the brothers before and after the alleged attack took place.

Comedians used the story as a punchline. Mr. Trump said it was a smear on his supporters, while liberal politicians condemned it as a disservice to victims of hate crimes.

“I’m sad, frustrated and disappointed,” Vice President Kamala Harris, who was a senator and presidential candidate at the time, wrote on Twitter. “When anyone makes false claims to police, it not only diverts resources away from serious investigations but it makes it more difficult for other victims of crime to come forward.”

But Mr. Smollett has maintained his innocence, pleading not guilty to the charges and insisting the attack happened just as he described.

“They won’t let this go,” Mr. Smollett said in an Instagram interview last year. “There is an example being made, and the sad part is that there’s an example being made of someone that did not do what they’re being accused of.”

Initially, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dropped the felony charges against the actor, saying that Mr. Smollett had forfeited his $10,000 bond and explaining that he was not a threat to public safety and had a record of service to the community. Chicago’s police superintendent at the time, Eddie Johnson, and its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, suggested Mr. Smollett was getting special treatment because of his celebrity status.

Kim Foxx, Chicago’s top prosecutor, stood by the decision.

“Yes, falsely reporting a hate crime makes me angry, and anyone who does that deserves the community’s outrage,” Ms. Foxx wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed after her office dropped the charges. “But, as I’ve said since before I was elected, we must separate the people at whom we are angry from the people of whom we are afraid.”

In the months that followed, much of the discussion surrounding the case focused on how prosecutors had handled it.

Ms. Foxx had recused herself from overseeing the case to avoid any perception that she had a conflict of interest after disclosing that she had communicated with Mr. Smollett’s representatives when he was still considered a victim. She delegated it to a deputy, but text messages later showed that Ms. Foxx had remained closely engaged with the case, expressing concern to a colleague that the office was treating the actor too harshly.

Later in 2019, a judge appointed a special prosecutor to review whether Mr. Smollett should be recharged and to assess whether there had been any misconduct in the way the case was managed by the state’s attorney’s office.

The special prosecutor, Dan K. Webb, renewed charges against Mr. Smollett in February 2020. He later determined that the state’s attorney’s office had not violated the law, but did abuse its discretion in deciding to drop charges and put out false or misleading public statements about why it did so.

Mr. Webb, a former United States attorney and a high-profile Chicago lawyer who worked as a special counsel in the Iran-contra affair, is in charge of the prosecution at the center of this week’s trial.

With the start of the trial, the focus turns back to the facts of what happened on Jan. 29, 2019, at around 2 a.m., when Mr. Smollett was walking near his apartment in downtown Chicago.

Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, the brothers at the center of the Smollett saga, told the police that Mr. Smollett directed them to shout epithets at him and place a noose over his neck. According to a cache of text messages related to the case, Mr. Smollett texted Abimbola Osundairo four days before the attack, saying, “Might need your help on the low. You around to meet up and talk face to face?”

Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo at a hearing in the Smollett case earlier this year. Investigators say they have said they helped Mr. Smollett stage the attack.  Credit…Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

The brothers told the police that Mr. Smollett met with them later that day and asked them to help stage the attack and again two days later to discuss the details. A lawyer on Mr. Smollett’s team, Tina Glandian, had said in 2019 that her client’s text message was asking for help getting herbal steroids in Nigeria, not help staging the attack.

The police said in February 2019 that Mr. Smollett had planned the attack because he was upset about his salary on “Empire” and was seeking publicity.

Ms. Glandian declined to comment last week on whether her client would be testifying at a trial that has been delayed for months as the court considered questions such as whether Mr. Smollett could be represented by a lawyer, Nenye Uche, whom the Osundairo brothers said they spoke to about the case in 2019. (Mr. Uche denied he had spoken to them.) Prosecutors opposed Mr. Uche’s role as lead lawyer for Mr. Smollett, calling it a conflict of interest.

Judge James B. Linn ultimately said he could remain as Mr. Smollett’s lawyer but could not cross-examine the brothers.

In the courthouse earlier this year, Mr. Smollett said little but called the proceedings a “dog and pony show.”

Mr. Smollett, 39, is also battling a lawsuit in which the city of Chicago asks the actor to pay back the funds used to investigate his report.

In recent days, the actor has been making a re-entry into the public sphere, appearing on a red carpet for a screening of a movie he directed, “B-Boy Blues.”

“I just don’t really see, honestly, what staying quiet has really done, where it has gotten me,” Mr. Smollett said in the Instagram interview last year, “There would be no reason for me to do something like this.”

Robert Chiarito and Mark Guarino contributed reporting.

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