Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor who said he was the victim of a hate crime, was charged Wednesday night by an Illinois grand jury that found probable cause that he had actually staged the assault he reported to Chicago police in January.
Law enforcement officials said a grand jury had decided that Mr. Smollett falsely reported being attacked in a case that quickly drew national attention, and charged him with a felony count of disorderly conduct.
Mr. Smollett, who is black and openly gay, had told the police that, while walking in downtown Chicago, he had been confronted by masked men who hurled homophobic and racial slurs at him, and announced it was “MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s campaign slogan.
But the change in thinking by investigators as the case progressed began to unleash criticism against the news media and politicians who many critics said were too quick to embrace a sketchy account in their drive to tarnish the president. It became a nightly topic on Fox News for Tucker Carlson, who called it a case of identity politics run amok. “Identity politics is a scam,” he said, “and it is not so different from the one that Jussie Smollett just pulled.”
Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, said on Wednesday: “I think that the initial reaction suggested that there is a lot of credulity, especially among liberals who were looking at a story that seemed to confirm their impressions about Trump supporters.”
Mr. Smollett has continued to vehemently insist the incident occurred just as he reported it. A representative for him, Pamela Sharp, said that she was “aware of the news” but had no further comment.
From the start, investigators had difficulty corroborating Mr. Smollett’s story, even with about a dozen detectives assigned to the case.
No surveillance cameras caught the attack. There were no witnesses. He had not reported it from the scene, and when he got home was still wearing a noose that he said the perpetrators had placed around his neck.
Investigators, though, were able to track two men who appeared on video footage not far from the scene that night. Using ride share data, they discovered the two were brothers who in fact knew Mr. Smollett. One had acted as an extra on “Empire.”
The police initially identified the brothers as possible suspects in the attack, but then released them without filing any charges. The men had reportedly told investigators that Mr. Smollett had coordinated a faux attack and paid them to participate in it.
The brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, were brought in as witnesses to the grand jury Wednesday evening with their lawyer.
Filing a false police report in Illinois is technically referred to as disorderly conduct and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. In Mr. Smollett’s case, the police said the grand jury had decided on a felony count, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Mr. Smollett’s lawyers, Todd S. Pugh and Victor P. Henderson, have said their client denies the police account. “Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with,” they said in a statement Saturday.
It added: “One of these purported suspects was Jussie’s personal trainer who he hired to ready him physically for a music video. It is impossible to believe that this person could have played a role in the crime against Jussie or would falsely claim Jussie’s complicity.”