CHICAGO (Reuters) – A grand jury in Chicago has returned a 16-count felony indictment against television actor Jussie Smollett, accusing him of falsely reporting to police that he was the victim of a hate-crime assault, according to court documents made public on Friday.
Smollett, who is black and openly gay and plays a gay musician on the Fox network hip-hop drama “Empire,” was charged last month in a single-count criminal complaint with lying to police about a supposed racist and homophobic attack by supporters of President Donald Trump.
Neither Smollett’s attorney nor his spokeswoman could immediately be reached for comment on the latest charges. Each count carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
At the time he was initially charged, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett had paid two brothers $35,000 to stage an assault on him in a hoax orchestrated to somehow further his acting career.
Smollett, 36, surrendered to police and was later released on $100,000 bond two weeks ago in connection with the initial charge against him. It was not immediately clear whether the actor would be taken into custody again to face additional charges. He has a court date set for March 14.
The indictment, returned by a grand jury on Thursday, charges Smollett with 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct alleging that he gave false accounts of an attack on him to police investigators. A copy of the document was furnished to Reuters by a Cook County Circuit Court clerk.
According to previous police recitations of Smollett’s story, he reported that two masked men approached him on a darkened street on Jan. 29 shouting racial and homophobic slurs, struck him in the face, doused him with an “unknown chemical substance” and wrapped a rope around his neck before they fled.
Smollett also told police, according to authorities, that the attackers had yelled, “This is MAGA country,” referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Smollett took himself to a hospital but was not seriously hurt, police had said.
News of the purported assault spread quickly on social media, with many expressing outrage while others suggested the story was fabricated even as Chicago police insisted their detectives were treating the matter seriously.
In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” days before he was charged, Smollett said he was angry that some people questioned his story, and he suggested the disbelief might come from racial bias.
His attorneys said after his arrest on Feb. 21 they were conducting a thorough investigation for purposes of mounting the actor’s defense.
Smollett himself, according to reports in media citing unnamed sources, apologized last month to the cast and crew on the set of “Empire” but maintained his innocence.
“Empire” debuted on Fox in 2015 and has earned multiple Emmy nominations. Smollett plays the character Jamal Lyon, a member of the family that is the focus of the drama. Producers said in February they were removing his character from the final two episodes of the show’s current season.
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Leslie Adler and James Dalgleish)