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What at first seemed like a tragic, yet straightforward case has now turned into a twisted mess of “he said, he said” in the saga of Empire actor Jussie Smollett‘s alleged attack. When news first broke on January 29, it was reported that Smollett (who is Black and gay) was the victim of what looked to be a racist and homophobic hate crime. Since then, rumours, limited police statements and other developments have muddied the waters and taken the whole case in a disturbing direction. 

What we thought we knew

The alleged attack was first reported to police by Smollett’s manager in the wee-hours of Tuesday, January 29. Over the course of the following day, news outlets learned and reported that Smollett had been walking to his apartment in downtown Chicago when two masked men approached him and started beating him, yelling racist and homophobic slurs and finishing by pouring an unknown liquid on him and tying a noose-like rope around his neck. Smollett also said the two individuals told him, “This is MAGA country,” suggesting they were Trump supporters. 

Police assured the outraged public that they were taking the investigation seriously, starting with a threatening letter sent to Smollett at the Fox studio where he films Empire. Smollett sat down for an interview with police as part of the investigation. In an update two days later, the department released images of two “persons of interest” in the case and appealed to the public for help identifying them. 

It was assumed by the general public that the attack was a hate crime and Smollett received overwhelming support on social media and from celebrities. He thanked everyone for their love and went on to perform at a previously scheduled concert the following weekend. 

Rumours took over

Recently, details have gotten a little sketchy. Last week, police asked Smollett to turn over phone files in aid of the investigation. The actor provided heavily redacted records that were so inscrutable, police called them insufficient for a criminal investigation. 

Smollett defended the redacted material, issuing a statement through his lawyers explaining it was “intended to protect the privacy of personal contacts or high-profile individuals not relevant to the attack.” But that didn’t stop the rumour mill from kicking into overdrive. 

The redacted files plus the admission by police that they were not able to find surveillance footage of the attack (Chicago has an incredibly sophisticated surveillance network) led to the generation of rumours that Smollett hadn’t actually been attacked. 

Two Chicago media outlets reported last week that “multiple sources” had confirmed to them police were investigating whether Smollett’s attack was staged. There was a coinciding rumour that Fox had been planning to write Smollett’s character off Empire prior and the attack was a career move orchestrated by Smollett. 

Both these rumours were refuted by official sources at the end of the week. Fox assured in a statement that Smollett is a “core” of the show and rumours they were writing him off were “patently ridiculous.” 

Chicago police also said in a statement that the attack being “a hoax” was yet “unconfirmed by case detectives.” They also contacted the news outlets that first reported the rumours to refute the claims, calling those sources “uninformed and inaccurate.” 

Wait, are they rumours?

Shortly after police said that the source reports were unsubstantiated, they commented further that they would like to re-interview Smollett himself after interrogations of two individuals who were considered persons of interest resulted in “new evidence.” 

The individuals in question were reported to be two Nigerian brothers who were thought to be in the area at the time of the crime and had purchased rope prior to the attack. The brothers’ lawyer told media that both the individuals knew Smollett from working on Empire. Police questioned the brothers for two days before releasing them without charges over the weekend. 

Did Smollett orchestrate his attack?

Monday morning, CNN reported with input from “two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation” that Chicago police believe Smollett orchestrated his attack by paying two men to assault him. The report suggests that the two brothers who were interrogated by police said in their interview that they were hired to carry out the fake attack. 

The Chicago police have not yet responded to the new information. 

Here comes the judgement

The new uncertainty has spurned backlash and intense emotions in a number of directions. While some commenters online are outraged at the apparent dishonesty and using the developments to disregard the prevalence of hate crimes, others are taking a more nuanced approach. Many are warning that one instance of dishonesty does not mean that real instances of crimes like these are not disturbingly frequent. Feminist activist Roxane Gay expressed the confusion many are feeling right now in a series of tweets. 

Others are willing to stand by the star. Empire executive producer Brett Mahoney tweeted that he believes and stands by Smollett. The tweet was re-tweeted by the Empire Writers‘ official account. 

Ava DuVernay, who was one of the first celebrities to express support for Smollett back in January, wrote that though she understands there are inconsistencies, she “can’t blindly believe Chicago PD.” Good Morning America host Robin Roberts — who sat down with Smollett for his first interview after the attack — reminded viewers Monday that the police had initially found Smollett credible. 

 

Still, some are withholding judgement until there are further developments. U.S. Senator Cory Brooker (who recently announced a 2020 presidential run) told reporters he wouldn’t be commenting until more information was made public. 

As easy as it is to form an opinion based on speculation and these bombshell reports, with no comment yet from police, this case is still a mystery — though a convoluted and fraught one.