CHICAGO -- "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett pleaded not guilty Thursday in Cook County court to 16 counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly staging a phony attack and claiming he was the victim of a hate crime.
The plea of not guilty to charges of filing a phony police report came after Judge Steven Watkins was randomly assigned to preside over the high-profile case.
Watkins, a graduate of Howard University and DePaul University College of Law, took the bench in 2014 after a career in private practice focusing on criminal defense, civil litigation and real estate.
While cameras were present for Watkins' assignment, the judge will ultimately decide if court proceedings beyond Thursday's brief hearing can be video-recorded.
Smollett's attorney, Tina Glandian, has taken the somewhat unusual position of favoring cameras in the courtroom, saying the defense wants the public to see what happens in court. Glandian said many of the leaks and rumors surrounding the story since it broke Jan. 29 were "actually demonstrably false."
"In light of the substantial amount of misinformation in the case, the defense actually welcomes cameras in the courtroom," she told the presiding judge of Cook County's criminal division judge earlier this week.
Last week, a grand jury indicted Smollett on 16 counts of disorderly conduct. The 36-year-old actor, who is free on $100,000 bond, has vehemently denied lying to police or faking the attack. His legal team has also called the multiple counts "redundant and vindictive."
The actor, who is African-American and openly gay, has said he was walking from a Subway sandwich shop to his apartment in the 300 block of East North Water Street about 2 a.m. Jan. 29 when two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him and wrapped a noose around his neck.
Smollett said they also yelled, "This is MAGA country," in a reference to President Donald Trump's campaign slogan of "Make America Great Again."
Police initially treated the incident as a hate crime, but their focus turned to Smollett after two brothers who were alleged to have been his attackers told police that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack, with a promise of another $500 later.