Actor Jussie Smollett has returned to court for the first time in a year for a five-hour hearing to determine whether one of his lawyers should be allowed to keep representing him in his case against accusations he staged a racist and homophobic attack against himself.
The hearing had nothing to with the charges against Smollett, who is accused of lying to police when he reported two masked men attacked him in downtown Chicago in January 2019.
But because the media and the public were not allowed to attend the hearing that began on Wednesday morning and lasted well into the afternoon, it was not clear exactly what was being said in the courtroom.
When Cook County Judge James Linn ordered the hearing, he said it centred on the question of whether lawyer Nenye Uche had a conflict of interest after two key witnesses in the case said they spoke to him. The witnesses in question are brothers who prosecutors said Smollett hired and paid to carry out what Smollett maintains was an attack.
After Mr Uche joined Smollett’s legal team, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo alleged that Mr Uche had spoken with them previously about representing them and talked to them about the case. That could result in the judge determining the lawyer has a conflict of interest that would require him to bar him from representing Smollett. Mr Uche has denied talking to the brothers.
Mr Linn will announce his decision regarding Mr Uche at a later date, said lawyers emerging from the private hearing.
A court spokesman said the next hearing in the case would be via Zoom on August 12, before Mr Linn.
Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez, an attorney for the Osundairos, told reporters they were confident the judge would rule with prosecutors and disqualify Mr Uche.
The hearing marks the latest twist in a case that has been full of them since Smollett — a black, gay man who starred in the television show Empire — told police he was walking down the street in the middle of the night when two men attacked him, doused him with liquid and looped a makeshift noose around his neck before running off.
What started as a search for Smollett’s attackers turned into allegations by police that Smollett staged the incident to further his career.
Smollett has maintained his innocence and has pleaded not guilty.
But the allegations cost him his role on Empire, and made him the source of ridicule from everyone from basketball analyst Charles Barkley to comedian Dave Chappelle. And his contention that his attackers told him he was in “MAGA country”, a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”, helped turn the incident into a national and international sensation.
Smollett has had court hearings throughout 2020 and 2021, but they have not been held in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.