The lead investigator of an alleged attack on the actor Jussie Smollett on Tuesday denied claims by defense attorneys that Chicago police rushed to judgment, saying about two dozen detectives clocked some 3,000 hours on what they thought was a “horrible hate crime” before concluding the former Empire star had staged a hoax.
Taking the stand as prosecutors began their case, former Chicago police detective Michael Theis said he initially viewed Smollett as a victim of a homophobic and racist attack and that his team “absolutely” did not rush to judgment.
Theis said investigators spent days after Smollett reported the alleged attack in January 2019 following up leads, collecting videos from surveillance cameras, door bells and businesses, poring over phone records and canvassing the area in sub-zero temperatures.
He also said Smollett refused to provide medical records related to the attack or a cheek swab so investigators could compare it to DNA that may have been on a rope Smollett said the attackers put around his neck.
“At the end of the investigation, we determined that the alleged hate crime was actually a staged event,” Theis said.
In opening statements on Monday, defense attorney Nenye Uche said two brothers attacked Smollett because they did not like him and that a $3,500 check the actor paid the men was for training so he could prepare for a music video.
Uche also suggested a third attacker was involved and told jurors there was not a “shred” of evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.
“Jussie Smollett is a real victim,” Uche said of the actor, who is Black and gay.
Smollett is charged with felony disorderly conduct, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
According to special prosecutor Dan Webb, Smollett recruited the brothers to help him carry out a fake attack which he reported to Chicago police, saying he was attacked by supporters of the then president, Donald Trump.
“When he reported the fake hate crime, that was a real crime,” Webb said.
Chicago police have said Smollett claimed he was attacked because he was “dissatisfied with his salary” on Empire.
He “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career”, said the then Chicago police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, adding: “This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve.”
The allegedly staged attack on Smollett drew widespread reaction and excited political and ideological divisions across the US.
Kamala Harris, then a California senator, condemned the attack as an “attempted modern-day lynching”. The actor Viola Davis wrote: “We all have to take this racist and homophobic act of violence very personally.”
Trump tweeted: “Jussie Smollett – what about … the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”
Outside the courtroom on Tuesday, Smollett’s brother said it has been “incredibly painful” for the family to watch Smollett be accused of something he “did not do”.
“We’re confident in his legal team, and we look forward to people hearing the actual facts of this case,” Jojo Smollett told reporters.