The tables have turned on Jussie Smollett, and not in a good way: The “Empire” actor and R&B singer, who told Chicago police he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack on a downtown street last month, has been charged with disorderly conduct for filing a false police report about the alleged hate crime.
Prosecutors in Cook County said that Smollett was charged on Wednesday, three weeks after he told police he was assaulted on the street near his home in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood on Jan. 29.
Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct, a Class 4 felony that carries a potential sentence of one to three years in prison and substantial fines. The charge came just hours after Smollett was officially classified as a suspect in a criminal investigation by Chicago police, who presented evidence before a Cook County grand jury.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said, “Detectives will make contact with his legal team to negotiate a reasonable surrender for his arrest.”
Cook County State’s Attorney spokeswoman Tandra Simonton said a bond hearing has been set for 1:30 Thursday.
Smollett’s attorneys,Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, issued a statement to USA TODAY reminding that Smollett is presumed innocent.
“Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked. Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
Fox, the network behind “Empire,” said it had no comment on Wednesday’s late-breaking news.
It was the latest stunning development in a saga that has by turns horrified and then infuriated Chicago and the rest of the country.
Smollett, who is black and gay, said he was beaten by two masked men who shouted racial and homophobic slurs, wrapped a rope around his neck and poured a “chemical” on him, later revealed to be bleach.
Smollett’s initial status as a victim began to shift last weekend after police arrested and interviewed two brothers who were originally identified as suspects after turning up in surveillance footage.
The brothers told detectives that Smollett, who employed one as a personal trainer, paid them to stage the assault. A search warrant for their residences also turned up a receipt for the rope that was placed around Smollett’s neck.
On Wednesday, Guglielmi said that Smollett had finally complied with their request for a follow-up interview with detectives and prosecutors, but did not say what was discussed. Smollett’s lawyers attended the meeting but the actor himself did not.
Because Smollett, 36, was charged with filing a false police report, he stands the chance of not only losing his career but being ordered to pay restitution to compensate the Chicago Police Department to cover the cost of their investigation.
Andrew Stoltmann, a criminal defense attorney in Cook County, said filing a false police report may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony under Illinois law.
“If charged as a misdemeanor, it may result in jail terms of one year or less. Typically, the defendant must also pay fines,” Stoltmann told USA TODAY. “If a person is charged with a felony in Illinois, they may be looking at more than a year in jail and substantial fines.”
He said cases that cause little inconvenience to police tend to be classified as misdemeanors, while people who create greater confusion or harm by lying may face felony charges.
“Given the defendant’s high profile and the elaborate nature of the (alleged) stunt, it is likely police would file a felony against him and seek jail time,” Stoltmann said.
Smollett has already lawyered up, retaining Chicago criminal defense attorneys Pugh and Henderson. He has since added Los Angeles-based celebrity defense lawyer Mark Geragos to assist with the case. (Among others, Geragos represented singer Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to assaulting his then girlfriend, Rihanna.)
Meanwhile, the FBI is reportedly in preliminary stages of investigating whether Smollett had any role in a threatening letter sent to him at Fox’s Chicago studio on Jan. 22, exactly one week before his alleged assault.
Celebrities and Smollett’s co-stars and colleagues on “Empire” expressed outrage and support for him after news of the alleged attack first emerged. Public support has since cooled somewhat after police began seriously probing the possibility that his attack may have been a hoax.
Politicians who initially expressed outrage at the attack and effusive support for the actor have backed off, either deleting their tweets (as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appears to have done) or saying they’re reserving comment until “all the information comes out,” as New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has.
But Fox, the network that airs “Empire,” stood by its star as recently as Wednesday afternoon when it told USA TODAY, “Jussie Smollett continues to be a consummate professional on set and as we have previously stated, he is not being written out of the show.” (Earlier media reports suggested a possible motive for staging the attack might be Smollett’s alleged dismay about being written out of the show.)
On Wednesday, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced she was recusing herself from the Smollett case “out of an abundance of caution … to address potential questions of impartiality based upon familiarity with potential witnesses in the case,” according to spokeswoman Tandra Simonton. She later explained that Foxx had spoken to a relative of Smollett shortly after the alleged attack and helped connect the family with the Chicago police who were investigating it.
As the conflicting accounts of the case have multiplied, Smollett’s lawyers told USA TODAY he feels further “victimized” by widespread suspicion that he played a role in the assault, echoing comments the actor made to “Good Morning America” last week.
“It’s the attackers, but it’s also the attacks,” he said. “It’s not that you don’t believe this is the truth; you don’t even want to see this is the truth.”
Contributing: Aamer Madhani, Jayme Deerwester and Bill Keveney, USA TODAY; The Associated Press