US actor Jussie Smollett was sentenced to almost five months in prison after being found guilty of falsely telling police he was the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime in 2019 – an attack prosecutors said he himself staged.
The gay 39-year-old African American was found guilty in December of “planning” the fake assault by paying two Nigerian brothers $3,500, and of lying to police in his depositions.
“You really crave the attention and you wanted to get the attention,” Chicago Judge James Linn told the former “Empire” star as he read out the sentence late Thursday.
He said the actor had a streak that was “profoundly arrogant and selfish and narcissistic”.
“This was premeditated to the extreme… You’ve destroyed your life as you knew it,” Linn said, adding that “you did damage to real hate crimes victims.”
He said Smollett was “just a charlatan, pretending to be a victim of a hate crime”.
The sentence and Smollett’s ensuing outburst capped an hours-long hearing Thursday and more than three years of legal drama following Smollett’s claim that he had been the target of a racist and homophobic attack.
Smollett did not make a statement when offered the opportunity before the judge announced the sentence, saying he was listening to his attorneys’ advice. But after Linn issued his decision, Smollett removed the face mask he wore throughout the hearing to proclaim himself innocent.
“If I did this, then it means that I stuck my fist in the fears of Black Americans in this country for over 400 years and the fears of the LGBT community,” Smollett said, standing up at the defence table as his lawyers and sheriff’s deputies surrounded him.
“Your Honour, I respect you and I respect the jury but I did not do this. And I am not suicidal. And if anything happens to me when I go in there, I did not do it to myself. And you must all know that.”
As deputies led him from the courtroom, Smollett shouted out again.
“I am innocent,” he yelled, raising his fist. “I could have said I am guilty a long time ago.”
The judge sentenced Smollett to 30 months of felony probation, with 150 days served in Cook County Jail, and ordered that he pay $120,106 in restitution to the city of Chicago and a $25,000 fine.
Special prosecutor Dan Webb asked Linn to include “an appropriate amount of prison time” when sentencing the actor for his conviction on five counts of disorderly conduct.
“His conduct denigrated hate crimes,” Webb said after the hearing. “His conduct will discourage others who are victims of hate crimes from coming forward and reporting those crimes to law enforcement.”
Smollett’s attorneys wanted the judge to limit the sentence to community service, arguing that he had already been punished by the criminal justice system and damage to his career.
Family members echoed those comments.
“I ask you, Judge, not to send him to prison,” his grandmother, 92-year-old Molly Smollett, told the court. She later added, “If you do, send me along with him, OK?”
Smollett’s attorneys also read aloud letters from other supporters, including the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and actors LaTanya and Samuel L. Jackson that asked Linn to consider the case’s effect on Smollett’s life and career.
Several supporters spoke about worries that Smollett would be at risk in prison, specifically mentioning his race, sexual orientation and his family’s Jewish heritage.
Linn said he did consider those requests for mercy, along with Smollett’s prior work for and financial support of social justice organizations. But Linn also excoriated Smollett as a narcissist and pronounced himself astounded by his actions given the actor’s multiracial family background and ties to social justice work.
“The damage you’ve done to yourself is way beyond anything else than can happen to you from me,” Linn said. “You are now a permanently convicted felon.”
Thursday’s sentencing, which is subject to appeal, is the latest chapter in a criminal case that made international headlines when Smollett reported to police that two men wearing ski masks beat him and hurled racial and homophobic slurs at him on a dark Chicago street and ran off.
The case took a strange turn when Cook County prosecutors dropped the initial 16 felony counts against him in March 2019.
But he was again indicted in February 2020 by a grand jury in Cook County, which handles crimes in Chicago, on six counts of disorderly conduct related to the alleged false reporting.
The case had initially sent shock waves through a deeply divided country still plagued by racial and sexual discrimination, and the actor had immediately received support from celebrities in political and cultural circles.