By Michael Tarm
ABOVE PHOTO: A makeshift memorial for three family members of actress and singer Jennifer Hudson in Oct. 2008, is seen outside Darnell Donerson’s home in Chicago. Hudson’s mother and brother Jason Hudson were found murdered in the house.
(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)
CHICAGO — Jurors shrugged off Jennifer Hudson’s star status and insisted it played no role in their decision to convict her former brother-in-law for slaying the Oscar winner’s mother, brother and nephew, a verdict that means the 31-year-old Chicago man will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“This wasn’t about Jennifer” juror Jacinta Gholston told reporters Friday evening. “It was a case about William Balfour.”
Balfour, a former gang member, was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder. He faces a mandatory life prison sentence. Illinois no longer has a death penalty.
Just an hour before their verdict, the jury of 12 sent a note to the judge saying three panelists still weren’t convinced of Balfour’s guilt. Prosecutors said Balfour shot dead Hudson’s family members in an act of spite after his estranged wife at the time, Hudson’s sister, Julia Hudson, refused to reconcile.
As the verdict was read, Jennifer Hudson, sitting on a fourth-row bench, bit her lip, tears streaming down her cheeks. A minute later, she looked over at her sister and smiled.
The Hudson sisters released a statement late Friday extending a prayer to the Balfour family, saying “we have all suffered terrible loss in this tragedy.”
“It is our prayer that the Lord will forgive Mr. Balfour of these heinous acts and bring his heart into repentance someday,” they said. They also thanked prosecutors for their “dedication and tireless work” and praised police and trial witnesses.
It was overwhelming circumstantial evidence, especially cellphone records that placed Balfour in the vicinity of the killings, despite his adamant denials, that convinced the jury in the end, jurors said.
Jury foreman Robert Smith said he “was certain from the very beginning,” though several others initially expressed doubts.
Going into the trial last month, some legal observers said Hudson’s aura of celebrity couldn’t help but affect its outcome. But asked if any of them were even fans of the singer and actress, 10 jurors who spoke to the media at joint news conference looked at each other and shook their heads.
Jennifer Hudson was the first of 83 witnesses prosecutors called. Several times she broke down from the witness stand, including when she spoke of Balfour with undisguised disgust.
But jurors said Hudson’s words on the stand, while touching, provided no actual evidence.
“We did ignore it,” Gholston, a 35-year-old chocolate company employee, said about the deliberations. “There was no discussion of Jennifer Hudson.”
The focus, others explained, was ensuring they were right that Balfour was, in fact, the killer. Several jurors they had sympathy for Balfour, knowing his life as he knew it hung in the balance.
“Some of us tried to make him innocent,” said Tracie Austin, one of the three jurors who wasn’t fully convinced of his guilt as of early Friday afternoon. “We couldn’t.”
Still, some experts say Hudson’s celebrity may have had an effect, even if jurors sincerely believed it didn’t.
“She is certainly quite beloved . . . so there is likely to have been very positive feelings toward her,” said Edward Schwartz, a New England-based jury consultant. When a case is based almost wholly on circumstantial evidence, “likeability” factors can play an even greater role, he added.
Balfour showed no emotion when the verdict was announced. A few of his relatives looked upset, one muttering that the verdict was unfair. As she had during the trial, Hudson looked back at Balfour’s supporters, then whispered something to her sister.
With no surviving witnesses to the 2008 slayings, prosecutors built a convincing circumstantial case. Hudson’s sister described how Balfour repeatedly threatened her, citing him as saying ominously, “‘If you ever leave me, I’m going to kill you. But I’m going to kill your family first.”’
Balfour’s attorneys suggested someone else in the crime-ridden neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side targeted the family because of alleged crack-cocaine dealing by Jennifer Hudson’s brother.
Public defender Amy Thompson said Friday she would appeal the verdict.
Hudson, 30, rose to prominence as a 2004 “American Idol” finalist. She became a bona fide star after winning the 2007 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the movie “Dreamgirls.”
She attended every day of testimony, sobbing when photos of her relatives’ bloodied, bullet-ridden bodies were displayed to jurors during closing arguments. Several jurors, too, said they would never forget the images.
Balfour had lived in the Hudsons’ three-story Englewood home after marrying Julia Hudson in 2006. He moved out in early 2008 after their falling out.
The killings occurred the morning of Oct. 24, 2008. Prosecutors said Balfour became enraged when he stopped by the Hudson family home and saw a gift of balloons from Julia’s new boyfriend.
After she left for work, prosecutors said Balfour went back inside the home with a .45-caliber handgun and shot Hudson’s mother, Darnell Donerson, 57, in the back; he then shot Jason Hudson, 29, twice in the head as he lay in bed.
Prosecutors said Balfour then drove off in an SUV with 7-year-old Julian King and shot him in the head as he lay behind a front seat. His body was found in the abandoned vehicle after a three-day search.
Smith, the jury foreman, said he hoped the verdict would bring Hudson closure.
“I hope she can put this thing behind her and get on with the rest of her life,” he said.
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