By Jason Meisner and Stacy St. Clair, Chicago Tribune –
CHICAGO — Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Hudson softly sobbed and leaned into her fiance’s shoulder Friday as a Cook County jury convicted her former brother-in-law of murdering her mother, brother and nephew in October 2008.
Though Hudson’s celebrity drew national media to the Chicago courthouse for the 13-day trial, she apparently had little impact on the jury. Several members told reporters that her name was rarely mentioned during deliberations. Their only conversation about her focused on her testimony, and their opinion that it offered little help in reaching a verdict.
“This was not for us the Jennifer Hudson case,” juror Jacinta Gholston of south suburban Chicago said. “It was the People of Illinois vs. William Balfour.”
Balfour was convicted of fatally shooting Hudson’s mother, Darnell Donerson, 57; her brother, Jason Hudson, 29; and her 7-year-old nephew Julian King. Prosecutors alleged Balfour was upset that his estranged wife, Hudson’s sister, Julia, was seeing another man.
Balfour faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison because he has been convicted of multiple murders. His attorney, Amy Thompson, says the 31-year-old Chicago man will appeal, and she downplayed the suggestion that Hudson’s celebrity impacted the trial.
“I think the jury was paying attention. They didn’t seem too interested in the coming and goings of people in the courtroom, including Miss Hudson,” she said.
Hudson did not immediately speak to reporters after court.
Despite her star status, the singer maintained an intentionally low-profile during the three-week trial as she declined media interviews about the case and made no mentions of it on social media. Except for the brief moments when she walked from the elevators to a private waiting area each day, Hudson did not mix with the general public.
Prosecutors planned it like this to keep their most famous — and sympathetic — witness away from the spotlight during the proceedings. They went to uncommon lengths to shield her, including driving her to the courthouse each morning and allowing her to enter through a back door out of view of photographers and cameramen.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said she spoke with an “emotional” Hudson and her sister, Julia, after the verdict. Before the trial began, Hudson had informed prosecutors of her plans to attend the entire trial because she said her mother would have done the same if the situation were reversed.
“She said ‘This was my mother. If it were me (who was killed), my mother would be here every day. So I’m gonna be every day,’” Alvarez said.
Hudson sat quietly in the courtroom gallery’s fourth row each day with her fiance and did little to draw attention to herself, opting to bow her head and stare at the floor during upsetting testimony. Both she and her sister stayed out of the courtroom on several occasions when graphic crime scene images were shown to the jury.
Still, Hudson provided one of the trial’s most dramatic moments when she appeared as the prosecution’s first witness. As she struggled to maintain her composure, she described how no one in the family wanted Julia Hudson to marry Balfour because of the way he treated her sister and Julian.
Jurors deliberated a total of about 18 hours since Wednesday, and were sequestered in a local hotel for two nights. Members described a disciplined deliberation process in which they voted whether each of the more than 80 witnessed called to the stand was credible. They also constructed a detailed timeline, using it to see whether Balfour’s alibi matched his whereabouts on the day of the murders.
The panel did not take its first straw poll until Friday morning — more than 13 hours into their discussion. The initial vote was 9-3 in favor of convicting.
“Some of us tried our best to make him innocent, but the facts just weren’t there,” juror Tracie Austin of Chicago said.
According to police records, Balfour became angry after visiting Julia Hudson at her mother’s home on the morning of Oct. 24, 2008, and seeing Sweetest Day balloons that she received from her new boyfriend. The couple had been separated for about eight months, despite Balfour’s reconciliation attempts.
After Julia Hudson left for work, Balfour returned to the house and fatally shot Donerson and Jason Hudson, prosecutors say. They alleged he then kidnapped his stepson Julian, drove him to the West Side of Chicago in Jason Hudson’s SUV and killed him.
Balfour, an Englewood, Ill., drug dealer who served prison time for attempted murder, was arrested that evening at his girlfriend’s apartment.
Julian King’s body was found three days later following a citywide manhunt and a $100,000 reward posted by his famous aunt.
“There was never a rush to judgment,” Alvarez said. “We are very, very happy with the verdict in this case.”
Given her frequent contact with Donerson, Hudson testified that she found it odd when she woke up the morning of Oct. 24, 2008, and did not have a text message waiting from her mother.
In a halting voice, she recalled receiving a frantic phone call from her sister hours later and told how she flew back immediately to Chicago to identify the bodies of her mother and brother at the morgue.
Her sister, Julia, however, served as the prosecution’s key witness as she told jurors about a dysfunctional marriage with Balfour that began with a 2006 wedding that she kept hidden from family for about two months. He resented the gifts Jennifer gave her, and he didn’t like her son to kiss Julia or put his head on her lap, she said.
The relationship began to deteriorate when she went to Japan with Jennifer to promote “Dreamgirls,” the movie musical for which Hudson won an Oscar in 2007. Balfour began seeing other women while she was away and did not stop after she returned, Julia Hudson said.
Despite separating in February 2008, the couple continued to have sexual relations in the months leading up to the killings. Julia Hudson testified that Balfour threatened to kill her and her family more than two dozen times, but she never went to the police or filed an order of protection.
“I didn’t believe him,” Julia said.