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Defense rests in Jussie Smollett trial; actor blasts attackers as 'liars'

The former "Empire" star, who was arrested and accused of filing a false police report in 2019, is being tried on six counts of felony disorderly conduct.

CHICAGO — Actor Jussie Smollett's defense team rested its case Tuesday after he returned to the stand in his criminal trial, sparring with prosecutors over the sequence of events in 2019, when he says he was the victim of a hate crime attack, and blasting the testimony of the two brothers involved in the incident as "liars."

After more than a week of witness testimony, the trial of Smollett, the once-rising star of the television show "Empire," is expected to continue with closing arguments Wednesday.

Smollett, 39, is charged with six counts of felony disorderly conduct; prosecutors say he made a false police report about the alleged attack. The case hinges on whose narrative the jury determines is more credible: that of Smollett, who denies having masterminded an attack on himself to gain public sympathy and raise his profile, as prosecutors allege, or that of brothers Abimbola and Olabingo Osundairo, who maintain that Smollett paid them to stage the attack.

Smollett, who is Black and gay, laid out what he says occurred early Jan. 29, 2019, as he was walking home in downtown Chicago after having gotten food. He testified this week that he heard someone yell "Empire" and "MAGA country," a reference to former President Donald Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," as well as racist and homophobic remarks.

Smollett said that he turned around and responded using an expletive and that he was punched in his left eye. Smollett, who is 5 feet, 11 inches tall, said he tried to fight back, testifying that the person who attacked him was bigger. He also said he saw a second assailant.

"It felt like something out of 'Looney Tunes' adventures. It felt like someone massive coming up to me. Not enough time to think," Smollett said. "This person felt significantly larger than me. Dressed in dark clothes. A ski mask."

Under cross-examination, Smollett said he initially refused to give Chicago police his cellphone for their investigation because he wanted his privacy. Asked by special prosecutor Dan Webb whether he was concerned that the phone would show several calls to Abimbola Osundairo, Smollett said no.

Smollett testified that he first met Abimbola Osundairo in 2017 at a club, where he learned that Osundairo also worked on the "Empire" set. He said they did drugs together and went to a bathhouse, where they "made out." He said they later did more drugs and participated in sex acts together.

Image: Abimbola Osundairo
Abimbola Osundairo at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago after a lunch break in the trial of actor Jussie Smollett on Dec. 1. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Abimbola Osundairo testified last week that he and Smollett did not have a sexual relationship.

Before the staged attack, Osundairo said, Smollett sent him a text message about needing to talk secretly "on the low." He said that during the conversation, Smollett brought up orchestrating a planned assault. Smollett said the text message was in reference to an illegal steroid that Osundairo had told him he could get from Nigeria.

Abimbola and Olabingo Osundairo, who are Black, also testified last week that Smollett instructed them to yell "this is MAGA country" during the assault.

Smollett reiterated Tuesday: "They're liars. They also said I had something to do with it, and I didn't."

Defense attorneys have suggested that the Osundairo brothers accused Smollett of staging the hoax because they disliked him and saw an opportunity to make money. They suggested that after police questioned the brothers, they asked Smollett for $1 million each not to testify against him.

Smollett's lawyers also have argued that police rushed to judgment when they charged Smollett. He initially faced as many as 16 felony counts involving filing a false police report before prosecutors dropped the charges in March 2019. Webb, the special prosecutor, secured another indictment last year.

Smollett said that the twisting saga has been "embarrassing" and that it has caused him to lose out on work.

"I've lost my livelihood," he told the jury.

Smollett could face up to three years in prison if he is convicted, although legal experts say his lack of a criminal record and the fact that no one was seriously hurt might result in probation and community service.

Samira Puskar reported from Chicago and Erik Ortiz from New York.