Jussie Smollett is facing prison time if he lied about being the target of a hate crime, legal and public relations experts say.
The “Empire” star claimed he was beaten up on Jan. 29 by two men who used racial and homophobic slurs. Smollett’s co-stars and colleagues on “Empire,” celebrities such as Ellen Page and Zendaya, and public figures such as Sen. Kamala Harris rallied behind the actor, releasing statements of support.
However, Smollett’s account is now being challenged, with police investigating whether or not he paid two acquaintances, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, to stage the attack.
If Smollett falsified a police report, the charge is a Class 4 felony in Illinois, and carries a potential sentence of one to three years in prison. Smollett could also be ordered to pay restitution to compensate for the cost of the Chicago Police Department investigation.
Smollett told police that two men attacked him at 2 a.m., poured bleach on him, and put a noose around his neck. He also claimed they told him that it was “MAGA country,” a reference to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. Chicago investigators are now seeking to speak with Smollett.
Steve Greenberg, a Chicago defense attorney, said prosecutors could also file a charge of obstruction of justice. He said it was likely, though, that Smollett would be allowed to plead to a misdemeanor, and not serve jail time.
Smollett has retained two criminal defense attorneys, Victor Henderson and Todd Pugh. They have denied that Smollett staged the attack, and said he will continue to cooperate.
“His lawyers may be having a psychiatrist examine the guy so they could prepare some kind of psychiatric defense,” Turner said.