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The trial of Jussie Smollett, who's accused of lying to police, is about to begin

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Chicago, the trial of Jussie Smollett begins today. Smollett's the actor accused of lying to police in 2019 when he reported he was the victim of a hate crime in the city. Chip Mitchell from member station WBEZ reports.

CHIP MITCHELL, BYLINE: Jussie Smollett says he was headed for a late-night bite downtown when two men yelled racist and anti-gay slurs and a Trump slogan, then beat him, poured bleach on him and wrapped a noose around his neck. Within hours, it was national news.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tonight, Jussie Smollett, a star on the hit television show "Empire," is recovering from multiple injuries after police say he was brutally beaten on the Chicago street in a possible hate crime.

MITCHELL: Chicago officials said more than two dozen police officers worked on the investigation. Their suspicions soon pivoted and focused instead on Smollett. Eventually, according to authorities, two brothers with ties to the actor said he had recruited them to stage the attack.

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EDDIE JOHNSON: This announcement today recognizes that "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.

MITCHELL: In February of 2019, Smollett was charged with felony disorderly conduct, and the city's police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, spoke to reporters.

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JOHNSON: Why would anyone, especially an African American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? I'm also concerned about what this means moving forward for hate crimes - that hate crimes will now publicly be met with a level of skepticism that previously didn't happen.

MITCHELL: There were more twists and turns. The county's top prosecutor recused herself. Later, her office dropped the charges, igniting a firestorm of criticism. A judge then appointed a special prosecutor, and last year a grand jury brought six new felony counts. A few months later, Jussie Smollett gave an interview and raised doubts about the charges.

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JUSSIE SMOLLETT: There's also two other witnesses that saw white men, that saw exactly what I say that I saw.

MITCHELL: The actor also took aim at the expected testimony by the brothers, pointing to how long police held them for questioning.

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SMOLLETT: They were in there for 47 hours. They continued to say I had absolutely nothing to do with it, and then they changed their story at the last minute.

MITCHELL: Smollett has received support from some activists, including Aislinn Pulley, a founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago.

AISLINN PULLEY: CPD has a regular practice of violating human rights and forcing confessions by people who are actually innocent of the crimes that they're being accused of. Any logical person's first reaction should be to be skeptical.

MITCHELL: Pulley points out the Smollett case came just a few weeks after the sentencing of Jason Van Dyke, the police officer convicted of second-degree murder for shooting teenager Laquan McDonald. Brown University sociologist Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve studies Chicago policing and is concerned about all the attention on the Smollett case.

NICOLE GONZALEZ VAN CLEVE: It's really distracted from some of the pressing issues in the criminal justice system right now, especially the ones that we're confronting during a pandemic - you know, overcrowding in the jail, COVID running rampant in the jail, understanding whether people should be on electronic monitoring and then the ongoing issue of police misconduct and police reform.

MITCHELL: Jury selection in the Jussie Smollett trial is set to start this morning. The trial could last all week.

For NPR News, I'm Chip Mitchell in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANSUR BROWN'S "SERENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chip Mitchell