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Jussie Smollett pleads not guilty to 16 felony counts for allegedly lying about a hate-crime attack

Jussie Smollett as Jamal in "Empire." (Photo by: Chuck Hodes — Fox)

Jussie Smollett pleaded not guilty to 16 felony counts Thursday morning, March 14, in Cook County, Illinois, the Associated Press reported. The 36-year-old "Empire" actor was indicted last week for allegedly lying to Chicago police about a hate-crime attack and had been charged with disorderly conduct for filing a false police report.

Though Smollett appeared in court Thursday, his lawyer, Tina Glandian, entered the plea on the actor's behalf, according to the AP. Judge Steven Watkins, who was assigned earlier Thursday as the trial judge, set Smollett's next court date for April 17.

Smollett, who is black and gay, told police in January that he had been attacked late at night in the Streeterville neighborhood by two people who yelled racist and homophobic slurs, hit him, wrapped a rope around his neck and poured an unidentified chemical substance on him. He said at least one of them had invoked President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan by yelling "This is MAGA country" during the attack. Soon after the alleged incident was made public, police confirmed that the FBI would be assisting in the investigation and that Smollett had earlier received a threatening letter at the Chicago studio where the Fox drama is filmed.

Several celebrities and advocacy organizations had rallied behind Smollett, expressing sympathy for him after he told "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts in mid-February that he would "never be the man that this did not happen to." But the tide began to turn just days later, when police announced that the trajectory of the investigation had changed, and that Smollett would be treated as a suspect.

The actor was arrested Feb. 21, and police said at a media briefing that Smollett had faked the attack because he was "dissatisfied" with his salary for playing Jamal Lyon on "Empire." Prosecutors claimed during a hearing that same day that Smollett had paid two brothers - Abimbola "Abel" Osundairo, who worked as a stand-in on the Fox drama, and Olabinjo "Ola" Osundairo, an extra - to stage the attack. Smollett has maintained his innocence, and one of his lawyers called the 16-count indictment "redundant and vindictive" in a statement to The Washington Post.

"Jussie adamantly maintains his innocence even if law enforcement has robbed him of that presumption," the lawyer, Mark Geragos, said last week. Smollett chose to appear at a brief hearing at Cook County criminal court earlier this week, during which Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr. reportedly ruled to allow cameras in the courtroom on Thursday but clarified that a trial judge would make the final decision. Glandian said she would welcome cameras because "demonstrably false" evidence has been presented against her client.

"We welcome cameras in the courtroom so that the public and the media can see the actual evidence and what we believe is the lack of evidence against Mr. Smollett, and we look forward to complete transparency and the truth coming out," she said at a news conference earlier this week. It was unclear Thursday if cameras had been allowed inside the courtroom.

A small group of fans rallied in support of Smollett outside the courthouse Thursday. Several people could be heard chanting "We are here today to support black people," "We are here today to support LGBTQ people" and "Justice for Jussie" as the actor arrived and walked into the building wearing a dark gray coat and sunglasses.

Smollett's arraignment hearing followed the midseason premiere of "Empire," which resumed Wednesday. Smollett's character appeared in several emotional scenes, and social media users found irony in one that showed Jamal performing at his former high school: "I don't know if y'all been reading the blogs and all that foolishness, but it's kind of been a tough week," Smollett's character tells the crowd.

Wednesday's episode, the 10th in the show's 18-episode fifth season, was filmed before Smollett's legal troubles. But the Fox drama's executive producers said in a statement last month that the actor's character would be removed from this season's final two episodes "to avoid further disruption on set."

This article was written by Sonia Rao and Bethonie Butler, reporters for The Washington Post.