CHICAGO — The “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett pleaded not guilty on Thursday morning to 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct stemming from his report of a hate-crime attack that the police say was staged.
Smollet’s lawyer Tina Glandian entered the plea on Smollet’s behalf an hour after Judge Steven Watkins was assigned the high-profile case. Smollett, dressed in a dark blue suit, blue overcoat and scarf, stood silently as Glandian addressed the court.
The plea comes six weeks after Smollett filed a police report on Jan. 29 that caught attention around the world. In the report, he told the police that he was jumped while walking in downtown Chicago just after midnight. Smollett, who is black and openly gay, said two masked men shouted racist and homophobic slurs before physically assaulting him, pouring a chemical on him and placing a rope around his neck. He also said the assailants told him he was in “MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
The Chicago police investigated Smollet’s claims, dedicating at least 12 detectives to the case, but when they found no evidence on surveillance video to support it, they began to examine Smollett’s story more closely. After questioning two brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, who knew Smollett, the police said the brothers implicated Smollett in a scheme to draw more attention to the actor in hopes that he would get a pay raise from “Empire.”
The police also said they had a check Smollett wrote to the brothers as payment for staging the attack, and said they believed that Smollett likely faked a threatening letter that was sent to Chicago’s Cinespace Studios, where “Empire” is filmed. The Jan. 22 letter, which contained a message of hate and an unknown white powder, is under investigation by the F.B.I.
Smollett, who left without commenting to reporters, is scheduled to be in court again on April 17 for another hearing.
After Smollett’s arrest in February, producers of “Empire” announced that his character would not appear in the final two episodes of the show’s fifth season on the Fox network. But as the series returned to the air on Wednesday night for the first time since Smollett’s arrest, his character, Jamal Lyon, appeared on the show in scenes Smollett had previously shot.
For some viewers, it was impossible to separate the character from the real-life drama.
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