US television actor Jussie Smollett has been indicted on 16 felony counts of falsely reporting to police that he was assaulted by two masked men shouting racist and homophobic slurs.
The indictment by the Cook County grand jury in Chicago on Thursday, and made public on Friday, gave details of the disorderly conduct charge against Smollett.
The 36-year-old actor, who is openly gay, was arrested and charged last month in a single-count criminal complaint, on accusation that he falsely reported he was attacked on January 29 by two strangers who hurled racial and homophobic slurs, beat him, threw an unidentified liquid chemical on him and looped a rope tied like a noose around his neck.
The new indictment in the case contains 16 similar counts – eight related to his interview with one police officer on the day of the purported attack and eight more stemming from his interview with another officer the same day.
Each count carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Chicago police initially investigated the incident as a possible hate crime but later said Smollett, who plays a gay musician on the Fox network hip-hop drama Empire, staged the attack, recruiting two brothers to carry it out, in a hoax orchestrated to somehow further his acting career.
Smollett’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, blasted the indictment in a statement as “redundant and vindictive”, adding that his client “adamantly maintains his innocence even if law enforcement has robbed him of that presumption”.
He also said that levelling charges in an indictment spares prosecutors the need to submit evidence and witnesses to defence cross-examination in a preliminary hearing, where a judge decides if sufficient cause exists for the case to proceed to trial.
Smollett has remained free on $100,000 bond since his release hours after surrendering to authorities on February 21. He already was scheduled to return to court on March 14.
In the meantime, there is no warrant for his arrest in connection with this week’s indictment “because it’s the same case”, Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told Reuters news agency.
During the investigation of the incident, several Chicago media reports said that there were doubts about Smollett’s account, quoting unnamed sources. Some local media have reported that the police department is investigating the alleged leaks.
“He took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told reporters the day Smollett was initially charged. Johnson said Smollett paid the two brothers $3,500 to carry out the staged attack.
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 lawyers said after his arrest on February 21 they were conducting a thorough investigation for purposes of mounting the actor’s defence.
Smollett himself, according to reports in media citing unnamed sources, apologised last month to the cast and crew on the set of Empire but maintained his innocence.
Since Smollett’s arrest, the producers of Empire announced that the actor’s character would be removed from the season’s final two episodes.
Fox network and the studio that produces Empire had no immediate comment on the latest indictment.