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The amazing conflicting roles played by Nigerians in the Jussie Smollett case.

Written by duyisegun

Three Americans, with Nigerian ancestry, played greater roles in deciding the way the pendulum of justice swung during the trial of American actor, Jussie Smollett.

By Felicia Coker

It is no longer news that an American jury of six men and six women, who deliberated for about ten hours over two days, had found Jussie Smollett, a Black and gay American actor guilty, of five of six counts of disorderly conduct. He was accused of staging a fake racist and homophobic attack against himself in January 2019, and then lying to police about it, in a bid to curry publicity.

But the interesting facts are the roles played by three people of Nigerian descent in the trial of the Empire actor. These dramatis personae are Nenye Uche, a defense attorney based in Chicago, in the US, and two brothers with minimal roles in Hollywood– Abimbola ‘Abel’ and Olabinjo ‘Ola’ Osundairo.

The three entered into the case almost at the same time on same side of the divide but ended up playing critical roles during the trial on different and opposing sides.

When Smollett told police he was attacked while walking home on Lower North Water Street in Chicago, in the US around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, 2019 by two masked men, who shouted racist and homophobic slurs as they attacked him, putting a noose around his neck, and pouring a chemical substance on him, Smollett insisted to the police at first that the attackers were white, because he saw a glimpse of skin in a gap in one of the men’s ski masks. He filed a hate crime and battery report.

The Osundairo brothers, who came to Nigeria shortly after the ‘attacked were fingered by the Chicago Police during its investigation as being behind the attack.  They were initially detained by the Police upon their return to the US. While cooperating with the police, they alleged they were hired for the attack by Smollett.

While the brothers were taken in for questioning by the Chicago Police, family members called two lawyers based in Chicago – Uche and Gloria Rodriguez for possible representation in the case. When Uche turned up at the police station, he was told Rodriguez had responded first and was already representing the brothers. So Uche left the police station without establishing any attorney-client relationship with the brothers.

But it was later revealed that Uche continued to receive requests for advice from the brothers’ friends and family, and spoke to the brothers and their mother on the phone regarding some aspects of the case but the brothers never hired him to represent them.

In the course of investigations, the Police changed the tag on Smollett from a victim to a suspect and was first arrested in February, 2019, on allegations that he made a false police report. Chicago Police claimed at the time Smollett staged the stunt because he was ‘dissatisfied’ with his $100,000 an episode salary on Empire, on which he played the role of Jamal Lyons,a black gay musician.

The police stated that the actor ‘took advantage of the pain and anger of racism’ to pull the publicity stunt. He was charged with 16 disorderly conduct charges.

Even though the charges were initially dropped two months later by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, the national uproar that followed that action led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, Dan Webb, to look into the entire case. This led to a special County grand jury returning a six-count indictment accusing Smollett of lying to Chicago Police and he was formally charged. He hired Uche as one of his defense lawyers and then the prosecutors objected citing conflict of interests.

A County judge had to rule that Uche can represent Smollett in the case but on the condition that he cannot personally cross-examine the Osundairo brothers, who were going to be the star prosecution witnesses, during trial. The judge ruled that Smollett, who is the only person whose freedom is at stake, has waived any potential conflict of interest regarding Uche’s previous contact with the Osundairo brothers, so Uche should stay on the case if Smollett wants him as part of the defense team.

And so the case went on to trial…..

During trial, state prosecutors rested their case on the admission of the Osundairo brothers, their key witnesses, that the actor asked them to attack him. On the other hand, the trial, the defense repeatedly tried to portray the Osundairo brothers as unreliable witnesses and criminals. Smollett’s lawyers said both of the brothers were ‘sophisticated’, seasoned criminals even though only one of them has a criminal record, pointing out that multiple guns, ammo and cocaine were found in Abimbola’s apartment in 2019 by the police, accusing him of being Smollett’s drug dealer, as well as being in a sexual gay relationship with the actor and trying to use their relationship as a way to advance his own acting career.

The defense also alleged that the brothers carried out the alleged hate crime without Smollett’s knowledge in order to scare him into hiring at least Abimbola on as a bodyguard on a $5,000 a week salary and that the brothers requested for $1 million each to retract their allegations and not testify against Smollett.

Smollett and Abimbola met in 2017 on the set of Empire when the Nigerian was working as an extra.

Abimbola, during his testimony at the trial, told jurors that Smollett had asked him to ‘fake beat him up’ as he wanted to use it to further his acting career. He said Smollett told him that they needed another person to fake beat him up and asked if Olabinjo could do it.

Under cross-examination by defense attorney, Shay Allen, Abimbola denied all the criminal accusations against him but admitted that he sometimes procured drugs for Smollett, but only as a “middle man” between Smollett and the dealers and flatly denying ever being in a sexual relationship with Smollett or using him for his career. He stated that he genuinely considered Smollett a platonic friend, and wanted to help him purely for that reason.

Abimbola admitted the brothers looked up articles on the incident while they were on a trip to Nigeria to visit family because they were curious and wanted to know whether Smollett got the media attention he wanted.

Olabinjo, who is an aspiring actor, a fitness trainer and home renovator, on his part, during examination by prosecuting attorney Samuel Mendenhall, said that his motivations for agreeing to help carry out the alleged attack were to curry a favor from Smollett, who was his brother’s friend, as he hoped the actor would be able to help him with his own acting career.

Olabinjo stated that Smollett planned out and rehearsed the fake attack with the brothers before the actual attack, wanted to be bruised up so it looked like he was in a real fight with racist Donald Trump supporter, and gave the brothers a $100 bill to buy supplies for the attack.

Olabinjo corroborated his brother’s testimony on direct examination. He said that despite agreeing to help, he had no idea that Smollett planned to actually report the incident as a hate crime to the Police and would never have agreed to take part in it if he had known.

Olabinjo’s alleged homophobic tendency and previous social media posts on this were exploited by a Smollett’s defense lawyer in heated sessions at which the lawyer motioned for a mistrial, claiming that the judge lunged at her threateningly during the dispute. The judge instantly dismissed the motion.

The defense moved for summary judgment immediately after the prosecution rested. Citing conflicting testimony between the Osundairo brothers’ recollections of who allegedly hit Smollett, arguing that the prosecution had not met its burden of proof in showing Smollett did not truly believe he had suffered a battery. The judge, just as he dealt with the defense team’s motion for mistrial, quickly denied this motion and Smollett’s attorneys had to began presenting its case.

Its witnesses included Brandon Moore, Smollett’s former music manager, Dr. Robert Turelli, the emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital who first examined Smollett’s injuries, following the alleged attack, and a driver who drove the Osundairo brothers on the day of the attack.

Jussie Smollett, then took to the stand for two days, in his defense. He repeatedly denied he staged a racist, anti-gay attack on himself for publicity, calling the brothers ‘liars’, he said there was “no hoax on my part.” He pointed out that the brothers’ testimony that he paid them $3,500 to carry out the fake attack was “100% false,” and said the $3,500 check to Abimbola Osundairo was for meal and workout plans because he was trying to get toned for an upcoming music video.

He testified that he and Bola had gotten intimate at a bathhouse, and even made out a few times but his brother, Olabijo, frowned on the relationship when he got to know about both of them. He also claimed that the brothers offered to change their story and retract their allegations that he had paid them to stage the attack if he paid them $1million each.

While on stand, special prosecutor Dan Webb questioned Smollett on the video of him picking up the Osundairo brothers their days before the attack, from his apartment to the place of the attack. The actor denied the brothers’ claim that it was a “dry run” for the attack, instead he said they had earlier planned to work out, but ended up scrapping that plan as they instead ended up just driving around and smoking weed.

Even though the jury finally found Smollett guilty of five out of the six counts, the role of Uche in his defense was a greater one. It also help to solidify the lawyer’s reputation as one of America’s best litigators and trial lawyers. Before the Smollett case he had successfully won several big cases in the areas of personal injury, civil rights, human rights, murder and other criminal defense. The award-winning attorney, who is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin Law School, has formerly worked as a prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, one of the largest and busiest prosecutor offices in the US.

Uche, who could not hide his surprise and displeasure with the jury’s verdict in the Smollett case, immediately told the media that his client plans to appeal his conviction, and he expects the appeal will succeed. He said Smollett was innocent and the jury’s verdict was contradictory.

 “A jury can’t come out and say, ‘Guilty of lying,’ but, ‘Not guilty of lying’, it doesn’t make sense,” Uche said.

‘We obviously respectfully disagree with the jury’s verdict. The verdict is inconsistent. You cannot say that Jussie is lying and Jussie is not lying for the same exact incidents.

“So we feel 100 per cent confident that this case will be won on appeal. Unfortunately that’s not the route we wanted, but sometimes that’s the route you have to take to win,” he said.

During trial, out of the court, evidence emerged that Smollett and Abimbola were close, frequently visiting an upscale a gay bathhouse, partying together and might have had a sexual relationship. But the Osundairo brothers denied being gay and even sued Smollett’s Hollywood lawyers, Tina Glandian and Mark Geragos, last year for defamation after the lawyers insinuated there was a sexual relationship between Smollett and Abimbola in an interview with “Good Morning America.”

The suit claimed the comments put them and their family, who are Nigerians, at risk due to Nigerian laws that make homosexuality punishable by up to 14 years in prison. But a judge dismissed the defamation suit in November this year.

Keen observers find the Smollett case interesting and intriguing because of the roles played by these three men of Nigerian descent. While one was in a desperate race to keep the actor out of jail, the jury solely relied on the evidences of the other two to send him to jail.

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