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.
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LA jail guards routinely punch incarcerated people in the head, monitors find
Los Angeles jail guards have frequently punched incarcerated people in the head and subjected them to a “humiliating” group strip-search where they were forced to wait undressed for hours, according to a new report from court-appointed monitors documenting a range of abuses.
The Los Angeles sheriff’s department (LASD), which oversees the largest local jail system in the country, appears to be routinely violating use-of-force policies, with supervisors failing to hold guards accountable and declining to provide information to the monitors tasked with reviewing the treatment of incarcerated people.
The report, filed in federal court on Thursday, adds to a long string of scandals for the department. The monitors – first put in place in 2014 to settle a case involving beatings – suggested that some problems in the jails appeared to be getting worse after they visited the facilities in December 2021.
The monitors, Robert Houston, a former corrections official, and Jeffrey Schwartz, a consultant, alleged that the use of “head shots”, meaning punches to the head, had been “relatively unchanged in the last two years or more, and may be increasing”. They also wrote that deputies who used force in violation of policy were at times sent to “remedial training” but that “actual discipline is seldom imposed”. And supervisors who failed to document violations were also “not held accountable” .
The authors cited one incident in which a deputy approached a resident who had “walked away from him” while he was being escorted. “With no hesitation, Deputy Y grabbed [his] chest and slammed him into the wall. Deputy Y punched [him] 5‐9 times in the head, and Deputy Z punched [him] 6‐8 times in the head as they took [him] to the floor because they ‘feared’ that the Inmate might become assaultive”.
The report also documented an incident on 7 September 2021, when there were reports that a firearm “might have been smuggled” into Men’s Central jail. Guards responded by instituting a “shakedown” and strip-search of residents.
“They said they were taken out of their cells in the morning, given no explanation (except for one inmate who said he was told the reason for the search by a deputy), strip-searched, then walked naked en masse through the jail and down to the room with the X‐ray machine,” the report said, citing complaints from jail residents. “Passing large numbers of male and female staff members, some of whom … mocked them or made other humiliating comments”.
Those interviewed said they eventually got underwear, but still no shoes, and were taken to a yard where they were forced to wait for hours until they returned to their cells later that night.
LASD did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the report on Friday.
The monitors said they had written officials in January to ask if this was standard procedure, and whether the residents were given food, water and access to bathrooms while waiting. According to the monitors, the department responded that it had completed a “report” about the incident with “corrective action plans”, but in the three months since, it had not sent documents or further information.
The report raised further concerns about the department’s use of the “Wrap” device, which functions like a full-body restraining jacket and is used to “immobilize” people. The Wrap procedures pose a serious risk of asphyxiation, and “the continuing practice … cannot be justified”, the monitors said.
The department had failed to fulfill its requirement to write a Wrap policy that the monitors had approved, and it had further misled the monitors about how the jail was using the device, the report alleged: “The practices used with Wrap appear to be almost diametrically opposed to the way in which the Department explained that Wrap was being used.”
In 2018, a man in jail in northern California died of asphyxiation after being subjected to the Wrap device, sparking widespread scrutiny of the practice.
The LA jails have for years been plagued by corruption and obstruction of justice scandals, with the former sheriff Lee Baca and his second in command both convicted in cases stemming from misconduct investigations. Guards in the Men’s Central jail have also long been accused of being part of a “deputy gang”, known for allegedly using excessive force. The department has also faced mounting questions this year about the death of a 27-year-old in solitary confinement.
“These are not one-time incidents – this is the culture and history of the department,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, executive director of Dignity and Power Now, a group that has long been fighting to shut down the Men’s Central jail. He said the report reminded him of the misconduct allegations and obfuscation from department leaders in a 2012 case. “After 10 years of exposure, 10 years of scandal, 10 years of reform, this department has had a lot of opportunities to get this right … but has continued to revert back to some of the most vicious attacks on Black and brown people.
“It is clear our loved ones are not safe in the custody of the sheriff’s department,” he added.
Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, said it was especially disturbing that the problems seemed to be escalating under sheriff Alex Villanueva, who was elected in 2018: “They are treating incarcerated people in the jails in a sub-human manner … There’s just an utter lack of accountability, which ultimately goes to the top.”
Helen Jones, an organizer whose 22-year-old son died in LA sheriff’s custody in 2009, said she wasn’t surprised by the report: “It’s been this way for so long, it’s just the norm. It’s out of control, and there are no consequences.”
West Virginia students to stage walkout over Christian revival at high school
Between calculus and European history classes at a West Virginia public high school, 16-year-old Cameron Mays and his classmates were told by their teacher to go to an evangelical Christian revival assembly.
When students arrived at the event in the school’s auditorium, they were instructed to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer, Mays said. The teens were asked to give their lives over to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. Those who did not follow the Bible would go to hell when they died, they were told.
The Huntington high school junior sent a text to his father.
“Is this legal?” he asked.
The answer, according to the US constitution, is no. In fact, the separation of church and state is one of the country’s founding basic tenets, noted Huntington high school senior Max Nibert.
“Just to see that defamed and ignored in such a blatant way, it’s disheartening,” he said.
Nibert and other Huntington students are planning to stage a walkout during homeroom period Wednesday to protest the assembly.
“I don’t think any kind of religious official should be hosted in a taxpayer-funded building with the express purpose of trying to convince minors to become baptized after school hours,” Nibert said.
The mini revival took place last week during Compass, a daily, “non-instructional” break in the schedule during which students can study for tests, work on college prep or listen to guest speakers, said Cabell county schools spokesperson Jedd Flowers.
Flowers said the event was voluntary, organized by the school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He said there was supposed to be a signup sheet for students, but two teachers mistakenly brought their entire class.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened,” Flowers said. “We don’t believe it will ever happen again.”
But in this community of fewer than 50,000 people in south-western West Virginia, the controversy has ignited a broader conversation about whether religious services – voluntary or not – should be allowed during school hours at all. A group of parents, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and other organizations say the answer to this question is also no. They say such events are a clear violation of students’ civil rights.
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders unique access to preach and proselytize students during school hours on school property,” Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit that promotes the separation of church and state, wrote in a letter to the school district. The district cannot “allow its schools to be used as recruiting grounds for churches”, the letter reads.
Last week’s assembly at Huntington high featured a sermon from 25-year-old evangelical preacher Nik Walker of Nik Walker Ministries, who has been leading revivals in the Huntington area for more than two weeks.
During the assemblies, students and their families are encouraged to join evening services at the nearby Christ Temple church. More than 450 people, including 200 students, have been baptized at the church, according to Walker, who said he was scheduled to go to another public school and nearby Marshall University soon.
Bethany Felinton said her Jewish son was one of the students forced to attend the assembly at Huntington high. She said that when he asked to leave, the teacher told him their classroom door was locked and he couldn’t go. He sat back down in his seat, uncomfortable. Felinton said he felt he couldn’t disobey his teacher.
“It’s a completely unfair and unacceptable situation to put a teenager in,” she said. “I’m not knocking their faith, but there’s a time and place for everything – and in public schools, during the school day, is not the time and place.”
Mays’ father, Herman Mays, agrees. “They can’t just play this game of, you know, ‘We’re going to choose this time as wiggle room, this gray area where we believe we can insert a church service,”’ he said.
Walker said he has never contacted a school about coming to speak; it’s always the students who reach out to his ministry, he said.
“We don’t even have to knock on the door,” he said. “The students, they receive hope here [at Christ Temple Church] and then they want to bring hope to their school or to their classmates.”
Walker, originally from the small town of Mullens, West Virginia, has been traveling the state since he was 17 hosting church meetings at schools. He said he came to Huntington on 23 January with plans to leave three days later but saw a need he felt compelled to address.
Walker said he sees a lot of “hopelessness” in the Huntington area: students struggling with addiction, anxiety and depression.
“When you see regions like this, then you really know they need the Lord,” he said, drinking a cup of hot tea with honey to soothe his throat after a couple of hours of preaching.
Tolsia high school freshman Mckenzie Cassell said she was excited for Walker to come to speak to her and her peers. She attends Christ Temple church, where she said she is now seeing a lot more young people since Walker started his work in the schools.
“It’s awesome to see a lot of young kids coming,” she said.
Cassell’s guardian, Cindy Cassell said it’s been powerful to see someone make such an impression on young people in town.
“The kids want it and they’re ready for change in the right direction,” she said.
The Cassells attended a service at Christ Temple church in Huntington on Monday night with Walker and more than 400 others.
At the end of the service, Walker invited people to come to the front of the congregation, where fellow parishioners laid their hands on their backs. They were then escorted into a room next door, where they changed into white robes to be baptized. Some cried as they emerged from the water, the fabric clinging to their skin, their hands held aloft.
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