Empire actor Jussie Smollett, facing a judge in a Chicago courtroom on Thursday, pleaded not guilty to the allegation that he lied to police when he said he was attacked on the street in January by two men in what authorities say was a staged incident to draw attention to himself, according to WGN, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Associated Press.
Smollett, 36, was arrested Feb. 20, about three weeks after the alleged incident initially portrayed by the gay and black actor as a hate crime. He later was indicted on 16 counts of disorderly conduct for making false reports.
“Jussie adamantly maintains his innocence even if law enforcement has robbed him of that presumption,” his attorney, Mark Geragos, said in a statement released to PEOPLE after those indictments were announced.
Representatives for Smollett did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
Smollett and his legal team previously said they are gearing up to launch an “aggressive defense,” according to his attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson.
“Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked,” Pugh and Henderson said in a statement given to PEOPLE. “Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
Smollett claimed to police that he’d been physically attacked on the street in his downtown Chicago neighborhood around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 by two black-clad, masked men who used racist and homophobic slurs, doused him with an “unknown chemical substance” and left him with a rope around his neck.
“To be perfectly honest, from the very beginning we had questions,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at a news conference after Smollett had been charged.
Those questions dogged Smollett for weeks, during which he also received widespread support and sympathy in response to his allegations. Investigators ultimately alleged the attack was a hoax he staged with two acquaintances, to whom he reportedly paid $3,500 for their participation, to allegedly help boost his salary on the hit FOX TV show.
“When we discovered the actual motive,” said Johnson, “quite frankly it pissed everybody off.”
Two brothers, Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, later issued a public apology for their role in the staged attack, expressing “tremendous regret” for their actions, according to a statement from their attorney.
“My clients have tremendous regret over their involvement in this situation, and they understand how it has impacted people across the nation, particularly minority communities and especially those who have been victims of hate crimes themselves,” the statement read.
Their attorney later said the check they received was meant to cover both the attack and personal training services for Smollett. They also allegedly received $100 from Smollett to buy the ski masks, rope and gloves they were to use in the alleged attack.
The brothers have not been charged.
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The brothers had been seen on surveillance footage the night of the incident and later questioned by police, who arrested the men but soon released them after they admitted their alleged participation and pointed the blame back at Smollett.
Police said several factors helped crack the case.
Interviewed at Northwestern Hospital after the alleged attack, Smollett claimed he’d been beaten by two men who shouted racial, homophobic and “political statements” at him, hung a noose around his neck, threw bleach at him and then fled on foot, police Commander Edward Wodnicki told reporters last month.
Police reviewed hundreds of hours of video from surveillance cameras in the area, starting with those focused on the street near the reported incident. The alleged attack itself was not captured, but police quickly obtained and shared images of two men “that we believed were the likely offenders,” he said.
Authorities were able, via surveillance video and witness accounts, to backtrack the men’s movements to a ride-share service whose pay account revealed their identities. Police then discovered that the two men had traveled to O’Hare airport and left the country using round-trip tickets to Nigeria, with a scheduled return to Chicago on Feb. 13.
The interim allowed police to issue more than 50 search warrants and subpoenas for phone and other records that showed the men had been in contact with Smollett — including one hour before the alleged attack, one hour afterward, and while they were out of the country, said Johnson.
RELATED VIDEO: Jussie Smollett Allegedly Paid $3,500 to Stage Attack Because He Was Unhappy with Salary: Police
Police met and arrested the men upon their return. But after the men requested an attorney, Gloria Schmidt, “she came to us and after speaking with these two people of interest, she said that something smelled fishy,” said Wodnicki. “She came to me and said, ‘You really need to talk to these guys, I’m going to allow them to give you a video interview with us present and we’re going to have you hear their story. They are not offenders, they’re victims.’”
Wodnicki added: “It was at this time that this investigation started to spin in a completely new direction.”
If Smollett is found guilty, falsifying a police report is a Class 4 felony which carries a potential sentence of up to three years in prison.
After being arrested and quickly posting a bond that allowed his release from jail last month, Smollett returned to the Chicago set of Empire, the Fox drama in which he stars as main character Jamal Lyon.
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