huffpost— Jussie Smollett “is a real victim” of a “real crime,” his attorney said in opening statements at the ex-“Empire” actor’s trial Monday, rejecting prosecutors’ allegation that he staged a homophobic and racist attack in Chicago after the television studio where he worked didn’t take hate mail he had received seriously.
Defense attorney Nenye Uche said two brothers attacked Smollett in January 2019 because they didn’t like him, and that a $3,500 check the actor paid the men was for training so he could prepare for an upcoming music video, not as payment for staging a hate crime, as prosecutors allege. Uche also suggested a third attacker was involved and told jurors there is not a “shred “ of physical and forensic evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.
“Jussie Smollett is a real victim,” Uche said.
Special prosecutor Dan Webb said the actor recruited the brothers to help him carry out a fake attack, then reported it to Chicago police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 staff hours on the investigation. Smollett said he was attacked by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, a report that ignited political and ideological divisions around the country.
“When he reported the fake hate crime that was a real crime,” said Webb, who was named as special prosecutor after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office dropped the original charges filed against Smollett. A new indictment was returned in 2020.
Smollett, who arrived at the courthouse in Chicago Monday with his mother and other family members, is charged with felony disorderly conduct. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said it is likely that if Smollett is convicted he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.
Webb told jurors Smollett was unhappy about how the studio handled the letter he received. That letter included a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree and “MAGA,” a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan, Webb said.
He said Smollett then concocted the fake attack and had a “dress rehearsal” with the two brothers — who worked on the “Empire” set with Smollett — including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and “MAGA.” Smollett also told the brothers to buy ski masks, red hats and a rope, Webb told jurors.
“He told them to use a rope to make it look like a hate crime,” Webb said.
But Uche said Smollett had turned down extra security when the studio offered it. He also portrayed the brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, as unreliable, saying their story has changed while Smollett’s has not, and that when police searched their home they found heroin and guns.
Twelve jurors plus three alternates were sworn in late Monday for a trial that Judge James Linn said he expects to take about one week. Cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom and the proceedings are not being livestreamed, unlike in other recent high-profile trials.
Whether Smollett, who is Black and gay, will testify remains an open question. But the siblings will take the witness stand.
Jurors also may see surveillance video from more than four dozen cameras that police reviewed to trace the brothers’ movements before and after the reported attack, as well as a video showing the brothers purchasing supplies hours earlier.
Buried in nearly 500 pages of Chicago Police Department reports is a statement from an area resident who says she saw a white man with “reddish brown hair” who appeared to be waiting for someone that night. She told a detective that when the man turned away from her, she “could see hanging out from underneath his jacket what appeared to be a rope.”
Her comments could back up Smollett’s contention that his attackers draped a makeshift noose around his neck. Further, if she testified that the man was white, it would support Smollett’s statements — widely ridiculed because the brothers, who come from Nigeria, are Black — that he saw pale or white skin around the eyes of one of his masked attackers.
New York fire: At least 19 killed in apartment block blaze
At least 19 people, including nine children, have died after a fire in a New York apartment building.
Another 32 people were sent to hospital, several of whom are in a critical condition, according to New York Mayor Eric Adams.
Fire department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said they had found victims on every floor of the 19-storey block, saying the smoke was “unprecedented”.
He told NBC News the death toll was the worst seen in New York for 30 years.
It comes days after an apartment fire in Philadelphia killed 12, with eight children among the dead.
Sunday’s fire broke out in an apartment that spans the second and third floors of the Bronx apartment block at about 11:00 local time (16:00 GMT), officials said.
Some 200 firefighters were sent to tackle the blaze, which officials believe was sparked by a malfunctioning electric heater.
Commissioner Nigro said there were two floors of fire, but the smoke had spread everywhere.
The door to the apartment where the fire started was left open, and smoke then spread to every floor, Commissioner Nigro told reporters.
“Members found victims on every floor in stairwells and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest,” he said.
George King, who lives nearby, told AFP news agency people were waving from the windows as the flames took hold.
“I saw the smoke, a lot of people were panicking,” he said. “You could see that no-one wanted to jump from the building.”
A total of 63 people suffered injuries, including the 32 taken to hospital. Thirteen are in a critical condition, Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser to the mayor, told AP news agency.
“The impact of this fire is going to bring a level of pain and despair to our city,” Mr Adams told reporters. “The numbers are horrific.”
He told CNN on Monday that the incident was “a wake-up call for all our buildings” to ensure complaints are heard and protective measures are working.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul called Sunday’s events “a night of tragedy”, and pledged to create a victims’ compensation fund to support survivors.
“There will be money to find new housing, burial costs and whatever we need because that’s what we do here in New York,” Ms Hochul said.
The area of the Bronx where the fire occurred is home to a large Muslim immigrant population and many of those affected by the blaze are believed to have originally come to the US from the Gambia.
Mr Adams urged anyone impacted by the fire to seek assistance from the authorities, irrespective of immigration status. He assured residents that their details would not be passed on to immigration services.
Speaking alongside Mr Adams, New York Senator Chuck Schumer pledged to provide immigration support to allow families to come together to grieve.
The building hosts a number of affordable housing apartments and the blaze is likely to raise questions over the quality of such units in the city.
Representative Ritchie Torres, a Democratic lawmaker whose district includes the building, told the US network MSNBC that developments such as the building where the fire hit pose safety risks to residents.
“When we allow our affordable housing developments to be plagued by decades of disinvestment, we are putting lives at risk,” Mr Torres said.
US flight cancellations hit new holiday peak amid Covid and bad weather
bbc– Flight cancellations in the US have hit a new peak in a Christmas season hit hard by the Covid pandemic and bad weather.
Nearly 4,400 flights around the world were cancelled on Saturday, more than 2,500 of them in the US, air traffic site FlightAware reported.
Airlines have been struggling with staffing problems with crew quarantining after contracting Covid.
Adding to travellers’ woes, heavy snow has hit the central US.
From the US cancellations, more than 1,000 are from Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports.
“Today’s cancellations are driven by Omicron staffing and weather-related issues. We did pre-cancel flights in anticipation of inclement weather. We’ve been contacting passengers early if their flights are cancelled to give them time to rebook or make other plans,” United Airlines said in a statement.
Sunday, when many people often return home from their Christmas holidays, is likely to bring further disruption, with more snow and heavy winds forecast.
“It’s too long and there’s no space to spend the time, get something to eat, it’s a long time here,” one traveller stuck at O’Hara airport told ABC news in Chicago.
More on Covid around the world:
- Antarctic outpost hit by Covid-19 outbreak
- UAE bans foreign travel for citizens without booster jab
- Omicron wave appears milder, but concern remains
Since 24 December, more than 12,000 flights have been cancelled in the US.
Airlines have being trying to woo crew with extra pay to tackle the staff shortages. But unions say workers fear contracting Covid or having to deal with angry passengers.
The US is facing a surge in Covid cases powered by the Omicron variant.
New York City has seen record cases despite high vaccination rates. The virus has hit everything from the police force to Broadway shows, although there has not yet been a significant hike in hospitalisations.
The city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, took office on Saturday after low key New Year celebrations.
In his first speech, he said the city would not be “controlled by crises”.
“This pandemic has not only impacted us physically, but emotionally, and I’m going to really encourage people in this city to just find that inner peace, no matter what we’re going through,” he said.
“We have been through tragedies before. This is a resilient city and a resilient country and I want to bring that energy,”
US follows UK’s lead and shortens isolation for healthcare workers who test positive for Covid-19
independent– Healthcare workers who test positive for Covid-19 and are asymptomatic only need to isolate for seven days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said.
The CDC reduced the recommended isolation time from 10 days in part due to concerns that the highly transmissible Omicron variant could cause even greater staffing shortages at hospitals.
In new guidance released on Thursday, the CDC said infected healthcare workers could return to work after a week as long as they were asymptomatic and produced a negative test.
The US recorded 261,339 new cases on Thursday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Earlier this week, the UK Health Security Agency announced that essential workers would be allowed to return after a seven-day isolation period amid a worsening staffing crisis in hospitals.
In a statement, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said it was updating guidelines in response to an “anticipated surge” in patients due to the Omicron variant.
“Our priority, remains prevention—and I strongly encourage all healthcare personnel to get vaccinated and boosted.”
Dr Walensky added that health care workers who were fully vaccinated, including with a booster shot, did not need to isolate after a high-risk exposure.
On Friday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced that essential workers who tested positive could return to their jobs after five days if they were fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, and had not had a fever within the past 72 hours.
“This is not Delta, or the first variant,” Ms Hochul said during a live address.
“This is Omicron, and thus far it has demonstrated it’s not as severe in its impact, and therefore we want to make sure that our critical workforce, who we’ve relied on from the beginning, can get back to work.”
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