‘In light of the substantial amount of misinformation in the case, the defense actually welcomes cameras…’
(Megan Crepeau, Chicago Tribune) “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett pleaded not guilty Thursday in Cook County court to 16 counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly staging a phony attack and claiming he was the victim of a hate crime.
The plea of not guilty to charges of filing a phony police report came after Judge Steven Watkins was randomly assigned to preside over the high-profile case.
Watkins, a graduate of Howard University and DePaul University College of Law, took the bench in 2014 after a career in private practice focusing on criminal defense, civil litigation and real estate.
While cameras were present for Watkins’ assignment, the judge will ultimately decide if court proceedings beyond Thursday’s brief hearing can be video-recorded.
Smollett’s attorney, Tina Glandian, has taken the somewhat unusual position of favoring cameras in the courtroom, saying the defense wants the public to see what happens in court. Glandian said many of the leaks and rumors surrounding the story since it broke Jan. 29 were “actually demonstrably false.”
“In light of the substantial amount of misinformation in the case, the defense actually welcomes cameras in the courtroom,” she told the presiding judge of Cook County’s criminal division judge earlier this week.
Last week, a grand jury indicted Smollett on 16 counts of disorderly conduct. The 36-year-old actor, who is free on $100,000 bond, has vehemently denied lying to police or faking the attack. His legal team has also called the multiple counts “redundant and vindictive.”
The actor, who is African-American and gay, has said he was walking from a Subway sandwich shop to his apartment in the 300 block of East North Water Street about 2 a.m. Jan. 29 when two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him and wrapped a noose around his neck.
Smollett said they also yelled, “This is MAGA country,” in a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again.”
Police initially treated the incident as a hate crime, but their focus turned to Smollett after two brothers who were alleged to have been his attackers told police that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack, with a promise of another $500 later.
Police pieced together much of their evidence by reviewing footage from about 55 police and private surveillance cameras showing the brothers’ movements before and after the attack.
The shift in the investigation came amid intense press coverage and often bitter public debate and stinging skepticism on social media.
Smollett addressed those doubts in a national TV interview and in a strongly worded statement after the brothers were released from custody after questioning by police.
A week before the alleged attack, Smollett told police he received a threatening letter at work. Prosecutors said Smollett staged the attack because he was unhappy with the studio’s response to the threatening letter. Chicago police took it a step further, accusing Smollett of faking the letter as well.
Federal authorities are conducting a separate investigation into that letter.
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