Two trials began this week that are being watched closely by many Americans. In Chicago, former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett stands accused of staging a racist and homophobic attack against himself and then lying to police about it. In New York, Ghislaine Maxwell is accused of sexually exploiting young girls for the benefit of her boss, Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in his jail cell.
Here is a rundown of each case.
Jussie Smollett Trial
This is a “he said…they said” trial. Smollett maintains he’s the real victim who was beaten during a hate crime as his attackers yelled racist and homophobic slurs, and put a noose around his neck to make it look like a lynching.
But his attackers, two brothers, confessed that it was all a hoax orchestrated by the defendant who paid them to stage a phony attack to draw publicity to himself.
When you have two diametrically opposed versions, jurors tend to look to other supporting evidence. Here, prosecutors have phone records, text messages, store receipts and videotape —all of which does not bode well for Smollett.
A surveillance tape that police say shows the defendant conducting a “dry run” or “dress rehearsal” of the attack beforehand would certainly be compelling evidence of guilt. So, too, is the fact that police were able to corroborate every aspect of the brothers’ story. It matches up.
What doesn’t match up is Smollett’s story. He claimed the attackers were white, but the brothers are not. Yet, the defense attorney told the jury that the brothers were, indeed, his client’s attackers. Smollett also sent a text message to the brothers stating he knew they were innocent. It can be construed as attempt by him to get them to clam up.
According to the lead prosecutor, Smollett sent another text message before the attack that read, “I want you to attack me, but when you hit me, I want you to kind of pull your punches a bit because I don’t want to get seriously hurt.” If that’s an authentic text from Smollett and prosecutors can prove it, that piece of evidence may be pivotal.
It’s unclear if Smollett will take the stand. He is, after all, an actor. His profession will surely play into the calculation. But the inconsistencies in his story, the videotapes, and the text messages will be difficult for him to explain during a vigorous cross-examination.
Ghislaine Maxwell Trial
Much will depend on the credibility of the four accusers who will take the witness stand. If they are competent, sincere, and believable, Maxwell will probably be convicted. It is eerily similar to the Harvey Weinstein case. His victims were powerful and persuasive witnesses in front of the jury.
During opening statements, the federal prosecutor described how Maxwell operated a sex trafficking ring:
“The defendant and Epstein made young girls believe that their dreams could come true. Behind closed doors, the defendant and Epstein were committing heinous crimes. They were sexually abusing teenage girls.”
Tuesday’s witness, Epstein’s pilot, laid the groundwork for establishing that Maxwell handled everything for her boss. He called her “Number 2” in the hierarchy. Prosecutors will introduce evidence that she recruited and groomed underage girls for sex during a ten-year period of time.
I wouldn’t want to be the defense attorney tasked with cross-examining these young women. That is a recipe for disaster. Accusing them of inventing lies for financial profit is a risky tactic.
Moreover, calling Maxwell a “scapegoat” may not be a wise trial strategy. But when you’ve got little else in the way of a defense, you do your best with the cards you’ve been handed.