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14 jurors selected in trial of suspect in slayings of Jennifer Hudson relatives

By Jason Meisner and Stacy St. Clair, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — With his fate hanging in the balance, William Balfour now knows most of the people who will decide whether he spends the rest of his life in prison for allegedly killing singer Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew.

So far they include a college student, a junior high math teacher, a physical therapist, a truck driver, a former prison guard and a woman who works for a local chocolate company.

Fourteen people were picked Monday for the Balfour jury in part because of their ability to maintain an impassive demeanor under intense questioning.

But as every trial attorney and courtroom observer knows, looks can be deceiving — particularly in a high-profile case involving a celebrity.

Balfour, who was estranged from Hudson’s sister, Julia, at the time of the 2008 slayings, is accused of fatally shooting the actress’ mother, Darnell Donerson, brother Jason Hudson and nephew Julian King, 7. The killings marked a tragic turn in an inspiring rags-to-riches story that elevated Hudson to iconic levels in her hometown.

Given her local popularity, Balfour’s legal team faces the arduous task of finding 18 people — 12 jurors and six alternates — who won’t let the horrific or high-profile nature of the case affect their judgment, legal experts said. It’s easier said than done as jurors aren’t always forthcoming about their biases or preconceived notions about celebrity trials, experts said.

“They have a hard job ahead of them,” said criminal-defense lawyer Sam Adam Jr., who successfully represented singer R. Kelly in a child pornography case in Cook County in 2008. “It’s difficult to find people in Chicago who don’t like Jennifer Hudson. If it were … Charlie Sheen, maybe people wouldn’t care. But this is Jennifer Hudson. People love her in this city.”

The 14 jurors selected so far were picked from among the first 46 people questioned individually Monday. They comprise a racially mixed group of seven men and seven women from many different walks of life. Four more will be selected on Tuesday for the monthlong trial.

The questioning was led mostly by Cook County Judge Charles Burns, with attorneys from both sides getting a chance to make follow-up inquiries.

While the written juror questionnaire focused heavily on Jennifer Hudson’s fame and whether her celebrity would prevent prospective jurors from being fair, most of the live questioning stayed away from those topics and focused instead on the more traditional issues at the Criminal Courts Building — each person’s background, employment and whether they had been the victim of a crime.

Hudson’s name, though, did come up occasionally during jury selection as candidates described their knowledge of her singing and acting career. One prospective juror, a pregnant businesswoman from the West Side, was excused from service after saying she could not be impartial to Balfour because she liked his former sister-in-law.

“I am a fan of Jennifer Hudson’s, and I feel bad for what she went through,” she said.

At least two would-be jurors claimed not to know who Jennifer Hudson was. Both were selected.

Others said they could put aside their knowledge of the case and their feelings about Hudson. It’s a promise in which defense attorneys rarely put much stock.

“There really is no magic-bullet question or theory when it comes to picking a jury,” said Chicago-based lawyer Alan Tuerkheimer, who has extensive experience conducting jury research. “You really just have to let the jurors talk and listen to what they’re saying.”

Balfour’s attorneys asked the judge to eliminate one potential juror from the pool Monday because of an admitted bias. The would-be juror, a middle-aged man, acknowledged that he would have a hard time being fair to Balfour but refused to explain why.

When answering questions from the defense, he gave short, one-word answers and did not make eye contact. Balfour, who was wearing a blue dress shirt with a striped tie, looked intently at the prospective juror, but the man never glanced his way.

The judge agreed the man’s answers gave him pause before officially excusing him from jury duty because service on the lengthy trial would create a financial hardship for him.

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