Jussie Smollett "is a real victim" of a "real crime", his lawyer has told the start of the ex-Empire actor's trial, rejecting prosecutors' allegation he staged a homophobic and racist attack in Chicago after the television studio where he worked did not take hate mail he had received seriously.
Defence lawyer Nenye Uche said two brothers attacked Smollett in January 2019 because they did not like him, and a $US3500 cheque the actor paid the men was for training so he could prepare for a music video, not as payment for staging a hate crime.
Uche also suggested a third attacker was involved and told jurors there was not a "shred " of physical and forensic evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.
"Jussie Smollett is a real victim," Uche said on Monday.
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 3000 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 across the US.
"When he reported the fake hate crime that was a real crime," Webb said.
Smollett is charged with felony disorderly conduct, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
Webb told jurors Smollett was unhappy about how the studio handled the letter he received, which included a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree and "MAGA", a reference to Trump's Make America Great Again campaign slogan.
He said Smollett then concocted the fake attack and had a "dress rehearsal" with the brothers, who worked on the Empire set with Smollett, including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and "MAGA".
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.
The trial is expected to take about a week. Whether Smollett, who is black and gay, will testify remains an open question. But the siblings will take the witness stand.
Australian Associated Press