“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.
Reporters, courthouse staffers and several supporters packed the courtroom for the arraignment. One man wore an “Empire” T-shirt, while a woman was clad in a shirt reading “Justice for Jussie.”
Smollett left the Leighton Criminal Court Building without comment, walking outside into the pouring rain surrounded by supporters. His lawyers also declined to speak to reporters.
The 36-year-old actor, who is free on $100,000 bond, has previously denied lying to police or faking the attack.
At Thursday’s brief hearing, Watkins continued to allow Smollett to travel to New York and California to meet with his out-of-town attorneys. Defendants typically must obtain a judge’s permission to travel outside Illinois.
Among Smollett’s well-wishers in the courtroom was local activist Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, who more typically shows up at the courthouse to support those alleging abuse by Chicago police.
“We don’t claim to know exactly what happened,” he said. “We’ve got two things to go with: the word of Jussie Smollett, who says he was a victim, and we’ve got the police. And we’ll go with Jussie Smollett. … I think as a movement for social justice, we don’t have a choice.”
Watkins has been a judge since 2014 and assigned to the county’s main criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue since 2016.
The actor, who is African-American and openly 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 an additional $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.