CHICAGO — After almost three years of roller-coaster controversy, the trial of former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett began Monday morning with the questioning of potential jurors about their exposure to news about the case.
Smollett arrived at the courtroom of Judge James Linn shortly before 9:30 a.m. local time, wearing a dark suit and a dark mask, with two supporters flanking him and holding both of his arms as he walked.
The case brings with it immense baggage, including what became a political crisis of sorts for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and the appointment of special prosecutor Dan Webb to handle the case. But jurors will be tasked with determining a far narrower question: Did Smollett in fact orchestrate a phony hate crime on himself, then lie to police about being a victim?
Because of COVID-19-related capacity limits, journalists were relegated to the hallway outside for the first part of jury selection, during which Linn addressed the full panel of about 50 potential jurors.
Two pool reporters eventually were allowed to be present in the room.
In his opening remarks to the jury pool, Linn said he expected a jury to be empaneled and opening statements to begin Monday. He said he may let evidence continue until 7 p.m. before recessing for the day.
As of noon, Linn had questioned 16 potential jurors, asking specifically whether they’ve heard about the case in the news, seen “Empire,” watched the celebrity gossip site TMZ, or belong to any civil rights or anti-police groups.
About five people raised their hands indicating they’d never heard of the Smollett allegations. Two or three said they’d watched "Empire" and a few said they’d seen TMZ before.
So far only one prospective juror, a white woman, has said she might not be able to be fair, explaining that she’d done research on the case early on.
“When I found out it was a hate crime, my daughter is gay, so I did some research on that,” the woman said. “She works in the downtown area so I was very concerned for her safety and what was going on.”