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Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson says there is “a lot more evidence” that has yet to be presented that supports the charge that Empire star Jussie Smollett staged his alleged hate crime attack.
Sitting down with Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America on Monday, the police chief said of the ongoing investigation into Smollett: “There’s a lot more evidence that hasn’t been presented yet, and does not support the version he gave. There’s still a lot of physical evidence, video evidence and testimony that just simply does not support his version of what happened.”
The sit-down comes weeks after Roberts conducted Smollett’s first televised and emotional interview after his alleged attack, in which the Chicago police said he provided information that delayed their investigation. During the interview, Smollett reiterated his claim that his attackers were white. Smollett, who is black and gay and who plays the gay musician Jamal Lyon on Fox’s Empire, told Roberts that he believed he was the victim of a homophobic and racially motivated assault. He had told police when he first reported the incident that his attackers yelled pro-“Make America Great Again” (MAGA) comments, and racist and homophobic language before and during the beating. According to the report, a chemical substance was poured on Smollett’s face and a rope was placed around his neck.
During a Feb. 21 press briefing, Johnson and his law enforcement colleagues outlined what they called a “hoax” attack, alleging Smollett paid brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, who are of Nigerian descent, $3,500 to stage his assault. He chided Smollett for the extra resources the Chicago department used for their investigation into what they were at first treating as a hate crime due to Smollett’s account. The prosecutors also released a detailed bond proffer outlining the case.
Smollett was charged with federal disorderly conduct for falsifying a police report, a class 4 felony charge that carries a potential sentence of one to three years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines. On Monday, a Chicago judge allowed Smollett to travel out of the state in order to meet with his lawyers in California and New York.
After posting bail and returning to the Empire set (the show’s executive producers later announced that Smollett would be cut from the final two episodes, which are currently being filmed), the actor and his legal team issued a statement maintaining Smollett’s innocence and vowing to mount an “aggressive” defense, saying in a statement that he “feels betrayed” by the criminal justice system. Smollett is due back in court in March.
When speaking to Roberts, Johnson clarified that his statements about the case are not opinions and are based on a “surfeit of evidence” gathered by investigators before the actor was charged. “It’s important for people to recognize that it’s not the Chicago Police Department saying he did something, it’s the evidence, the facts and the witnesses that are saying this,” he said.
Chicago police said Smollett first attempted to gain attention by sending a false racist letter to his place of work. “When that didn’t work, he paid $3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud in the process,” Johnson said during the press briefing. Police officials said they had the check in evidence and ABC News confirmed that the check was made out to the brothers, who are now cooperating witnesses in the case.
The check’s memo line reads, “5 week Nutrition/Workout program (Don’t Go),” ABC confirmed, a note that TMZ had reported could be a reference to training sessions, and was dated Jan. 23, six days before the alleged attack. Johnson, however, when speaking to Roberts, said the brothers told them the check was to “carry out this incident.” A Chicago Police Department spokesperson also told ABC News the interview where the brothers told police about the money is electronically recorded.
Chicago police, during the scathing press briefing led by Johnson, said Smollett “staged” the attack as a “publicity stunt,” claiming the actor, 36, was “dissatisfied” with his salary on the Fox drama.
As to Smollett using the symbolism of a noose to make an alleged false accusation, Johnson told Roberts, “The city of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department has its issues with racism and excessive force and all of that, and I’m acutely aware of that. But we didn’t earn this particular incident, and I just refuse to let us have to take that shot if I have evidence to the contrary. I just want people to understand that’s a damaging thing to do to a city and to a police department. It’s my responsibility to ensure the record gets set straight.”
He added, “There are real victims of crimes of that nature, hate crimes, and I just hope people don’t treat them with skepticism.”
The developing Smollett saga has captured the news cycle for weeks. After his arrest, the actor’s salary motive has been questioned by those close to the Empire set, with star Terrence Howard coming to Smollett’s public defense on Instagram. “The Jussie I know could never even conceive of something so unconscious and ugly,” Howard, who plays Smollett’s onscreen father on Empire, wrote to a follower in the comments of his post. “His innocence or judgment is not for any of us to decide. Stay in your lane and my lane is empathy and love and compassion for someone I’ve called my son for five years. It’s God’s job to judge and it’s ours to love and hope, especially for those that we claim to have loved.”
Empire is set to return March 13 to Fox for the second half of its fifth season. The network has yet to make a decision on the show’s future, though it’s considered a safe bet for renewal.
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek