By Jason Meisner and Stacy St. Clair, Chicago Tribune –
CHICAGO—Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson’s Cinderella story took a tragic turn 3 1/2 years ago with the killings of her mother, brother and nephew in a triple homicide that made national headlines and left Chicago heartbroken for its native daughter.
The trial of William Balfour, the former brother-in-law charged with the killings, continues Monday with opening statements in a largely circumstantial case that will paint a gritty portrait of the Hudson family’s life in the impoverished Englewood neighborhood.
Much of the pretrial publicity has centered on whether Hudson will be called to testify, a decision that prosecutors have held close to the vest. But regardless of whether she takes the stand, Hudson’s celebrity status will have a major impact on the proceedings.
Balfour is accused of shooting Hudson’s mother, Darnell Donerson; brother Jason Hudson; and her 7-year-old nephew, Julian King, as an act of spite against Hudson’s sister, Julia, Balfour’s estranged wife. He has pleaded not guilty.
Hudson told police in several interviews that the family had objected to her sister’s relationship with Balfour and knew of his criminal past. Hudson also told police that she knew of alleged threats Balfour had made against her sister and family, and that there had been rumors that Balfour had stolen her brother’s .45-caliber pistol, which was later determined to be the weapon used to kill the three.
On the morning of the killings, Hudson texted her mother from Florida, where she had gone to watch her fiance’s professional wrestling match. She told police that when her mother did not respond, she knew something was wrong, according to her interviews with detectives.
Even though Hudson has no direct knowledge of what happened that morning of Oct. 24, 2008, her testimony would provide a flash point for media coverage, and she would be an extremely sympathetic witness for jurors, experts said.
“I don’t know how critical or relevant that testimony is going to be … but that doesn’t matter,” said attorney Damon Cheronis. “Her celebrity is going to be very appealing to jurors because everybody likes Jennifer Hudson.”
But when the celebrity aspect of the trial is stripped away, what is left is a largely circumstantial case that lacks a confession, an eyewitness to the slayings or the ability to directly link Balfour to the weapon.
Prosecutors will use a series of witnesses to try to connect the dots of their case, piecing together a motive for the slayings and a timeline of events that ended with Balfour’s arrest hours after the bodies of Donerson and Jason Hudson were found in the family’s home. Julian’s body was found a few days later on the West Side in a vehicle stolen from the Hudson home.
The most crucial testimony will come from Julia Hudson, who was separated from Balfour at the time of the killings. She is expected to tell the jury about Balfour’s jealousy over her new boyfriend and describe threats he allegedly made to kill her and her family, according to prosecution filings.
Julia Hudson told police that she saw Balfour when he stopped by the house on the morning of the killings. She said that her estranged husband was angered when he saw Sweetest Day balloons from her new boyfriend, and that when she left for work, he was still hanging out on the street, according to court records.
When Julia came home from work hours later, she found her mother and brother shot dead and her son missing. Police found the weapon in bushes about a block from the vehicle containing Julian’s body. But prosecutors did not offer any evidence linking the gun to Balfour when he was charged weeks later.
While Julia Hudson will be a sympathetic witness, certain elements of her testimony could be problematic for prosecutors. The defense will be able to ask, for example, why she did not go to the authorities if Balfour had threatened the lives of her son and family and had vowed to kill her too.
Court records show that Julia Hudson told police she didn’t take him seriously. But she also told police, according to court records, that they continued to see each other on and off, and that the week before the killings, she had sex with Balfour at a South Side motel, a fact that the defense could seek to exploit.
Prosecutors also are expected to call witnesses to rebut Balfour’s alibis. He claimed to have ridden the CTA to a girlfriend’s West Side apartment on the day of the slayings, but detectives were able to determine that his fare card had not been used recently, prosecutors have said.
The girlfriend, Shonta Cathey, told police that Balfour told her to say he was with her the entire day of the triple homicide if anyone asked, according to court records. Cathey, who has since moved out of state, has been described by prosecutors in court filings as “hostile to the prosecution.”
Prosecutors also intend to use records from a cellphone found on Balfour at the time of his arrest. An FBI agent who analyzed data from the phone is scheduled to testify that by triangulating “pings” from nearby cell towers, it was determined Balfour was near the Hudson home around the time that two neighbor girls reported hearing gunshots, according to court records.
The teenagerss are expected to paint a grim portrait of the Hudsons’ crime-ridden neighborhood. They told police they had grown so accustomed to violence on their street that they shrugged off the gunshots instead of calling police.
Balfour’s attorneys have not discussed their strategy in the case, in part because of a gag order issued early on by Judge Charles Burns. Court filings suggest that the defense plans to attack the credibility of several prosecution witnesses, some of whom have criminal records. In addition, Balfour’s attorneys may also raise questions that the killings could be linked to Jason Hudson’s alleged drug dealing in the neighborhood, lawyers said.