A Chicago judge has said charges that US actor Jussie Smollett staged a hoax hate crime against himself are “utterly outrageous” and “despicable” if true.
The 36-year-old African-American actor is accused of filing a fake police report claiming he was the victim of a homophobic and racist assault.
Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke, who is also black, said the “most vile” part of the incident was the use of a noose.
Police say he staged the attack because he was “dissatisfied with his salary”.
The star’s lawyers issued a strongly-worded statement after the hearing, calling it an “organised law enforcement spectacle” and describing Mr Smollett as “a young man of impeccable character”.
What happened in court?
“That symbol conjures up such evil in this country’s history,” Judge Lyke said of a rope that Mr Smollett claimed the attackers had hung round his neck, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The judge’s comments at Thursday’s court appearance alluded to the racist lynchings of thousands of black Americans in the post-American Civil War era.
Mr Smollett, who stars on the TV series Empire, is suspected of paying two brothers to stage the attack on himself.
The siblings are co-operating with the investigation, police say.
Chicago officials say Mr Smollett also sent a racist letter to himself at a Fox studio before staging the attack.
Judge Lyke set Mr Smollett’s bail at $100,000 (£76,000), which requires him to submit a bond of $10,000 and surrender his passport.
Mr Smollett denies the charge of felony disorderly conduct. His lawyers said they would “mount an aggressive defence”.
Jack Prior, one of the actor’s attorneys, told the court the accusations were “inconsistent with Mr Smollett’s character” and that the actor “wants nothing more than to clear his name”.
If convicted, he could be sentenced to three years in prison and made to pay for the cost of the police investigation.
- Timeline of events
- ‘I’m the gay Tupac’
What did police say?
In a news conference earlier on Thursday, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson lashed out at the “shameful” scheme.
“Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?” he said.
“How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?”
Supt Johnson accused Mr Smollett of taking “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career”.
He said Mr Smollett had betrayed the city of Chicago, and said “this publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve”.
The “hoax”, he said, “received national attention for weeks”, and may deter future hate crime victims from coming forward for fear that their allegations may be met with scepticism.
He called upon the actor “to apologise to this city that he smeared”.
“Celebrities, news commentators, and even presidential candidates weighed in on something that was choreographed by an actor,” said Supt Johnson, with palpable anger.
“I’m left hanging my head and asking why,” he added, describing Mr Smollett’s actions as a “slap in the face” to Chicagoans.
What did Smollett’s lawyers say?
They dismissed Thursday’s proceedings as “an organised law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system”.
A statement from the actor’s legal team added: “The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr Smollett and notably, on the eve of a mayoral election.
“Mr Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”
Celebrity websites TMZ and Page Six said the actor was back on the set of Empire after the bail hearing.
How did the case unfold?
The openly gay actor said he had gone out to buy food late at night on 29 January from a Subway sandwich shop in Chicago city centre when two white men hurled racial and homophobic insults at him.
He said they also punched him, poured a chemical substance over him and put a rope around his neck.
Mr Smollett also claimed the men had told him “this is Maga country”, referring to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
An outpouring of support followed, including from Oscar winner Viola Davis and supermodel Naomi Campbell.
In an interview last week with ABC’s morning TV show, Mr Smollett tearfully said he had been “forever changed” by the alleged incident.
But suspicions mounted as police were unable to find any video footage of the incident from over 50 surveillance cameras they reviewed. There were also no witnesses.
Investigators managed to track and identify two men who appeared on video footage near where the actor said he had been attacked through a ride-sharing app.
The men – Ola and Abel Osundairo – had left the US for Nigeria following the alleged attack and were held for nearly 48 hours after they returned last week.
They were released without charges after providing information that “shifted the trajectory of the investigation”, police said.
One of the brothers is Mr Smollett’s personal trainer and both have worked as extras on Empire, a hit Fox show that depicts the lives of a music mogul and his family in Chicago.
Police say they have a cheque that Mr Smollett signed and that he had agreed to pay $3,500 for the brothers’ participation.
Supt Johnson said that Mr Smollett had told at least one of the brothers that he was “dissatisfied” with his salary from Fox.
According to the Huffington Post, Mr Smollett was being paid $65,000 per episode for his starring role in Empire, which has about 18 episodes per season.
Investigators said on Thursday that some minor scrapes on Mr Smollett’s face were probably self-inflicted.
Supt Johnson said Mr Smollett first “attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter that relied on racial, homophobic and political language” to himself at Fox studios.
Police had confirmed in early February that white powder – later identified as aspirin – was in the letter.
During another news conference on Thursday, police said Mr Smollett had also claimed that three days before the attack he received an unidentified phone call from a man who uttered a homophobic slur then hung up.
He told police that incident happened near a surveillance camera. It was the same camera that police say Mr Smollett would later point out to the Osundairo brothers in preparation for the alleged hoax attack.
On Wednesday, CBS Chicago obtained footage which appeared to show two people buying materials, including balaclavas, that had allegedly been worn by the actor’s attackers.
Mr Smollett turned himself in early on Thursday.
Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television, which make Empire, issued a statement on Thursday saying they were “evaluating the situation” and “considering our options.”
In the aftermath of the attack, Democratic White House hopefuls Cory Booker and Kamala Harris both called the incident a “modern-day lynching”.
Ms Harris, a California senator, on Thursday said she was “sad, frustrated, and disappointed”.
President Trump tweeted his condemnation after the police news conference of Mr Smollett’s “racist and dangerous comments”.