CHICAGO (AP) — The trial of the man accused of killing Jennifer Hudson’s family opened with the marquee witness, as prosecutors put the actress and singer on the stand Monday for emotional testimony that may leave a strong impression on jurors.
Hudson, wearing a subdued black dress, broke down on the witness stand, stopping to dab her tears and try to regain her composure, as she testified just yards from the man prosecutors say killed her mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew in a fit of jealous rage nearly four years ago.
Hudson, the 2004 “American Idol” finalist (in Season Three in 2004, which was won by Fantasia Barrino) and 2007 Oscar winner for her role in “Dreamgirls,” was the first witness called after prosecutors and attorneys for William Balfour finished their opening statements. While she couldn’t tell jurors details about the shootings themselves, she did offer moving testimony about her family, including her reaction to her sister, Julia Hudson, telling her she was going to marry Balfour.
“None of us wanted her to marry him,” she said, her voice cracking and struggling to hold back tears. “We did not like how he treated her,” she said.
Putting the star on the stand first was a shrewd move by prosecutors, according to one former federal prosecutor.
“It rivets the jury,” said Phil Turner, a Chicago attorney. “For better or worse it increases the importance of the case in jurors’ minds.”
Judge Charles Burns has instructed jurors to set aside any sympathy for Hudson, but Turner said her presence is sure to be noted. And Hudson can now sit through the rest of the trial, in full view of the jury. Witnesses typically are not allowed to watch trials until they have testified, Turner said.
“Now the jury knows everything about her and that she’s in the courtroom only accentuates that this is an important case,” he said.
When Hudson’s sister, Julia Hudson, testified later in the day about her ex-husband’s alleged threats against her family, Jennifer Hudson was watching from a fourth-row bench. She bowed her head and dabbed away tears as prosecutors played a recording of the 911 call her sister made after discovering their mother’s bloodied body.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” Julia Hudson is heard yelling at a dispatcher, who tells her to stop screaming because he can’t understand her. “My momma, my momma!”
Balfour has pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree murder in the October 2008 slayings.
A silver and black .45-pistol prosecutors allege is the murder weapon lay clearly visible on the prosecutor’s table not far from where Jennifer Hudson was sitting for much of the day.
With her hair up in a bun, Hudson at first seemed composed as a prosecutor began asking her questions. But the testimony became increasingly difficult, and she began crying when talking about seeing her family the Sunday before the killings and later when a prosecutor showed her a picture of her mother.
Balfour showed little emotion during her testimony and during opening statements.
After more than 30 minutes on the stand, Hudson grabbed a fistful of tissues and walked slowly across the courtroom directly in front of jurors. She then took a seat next to her fiance, David Otunga, best known for his stint on VH1′s reality show “I Love New York.”
Prosecutors contend Balfour repeatedly threatened Julia Hudson and her family after the couple separated. Their divorce was finalized last year.
Julia Hudson testified that her ex-husband was so prone to jealousy, he even became angry when her son, Julian King, kissed her.
“He’d say, `Get off my wife,’” she said.
She described for jurors the first of many alleged threats by Balfour. After she rejected his pleas in May 2008 to reconcile, she said, Balfour grew agitated.
“He said, `If you leave me, you will be the last to die. l’ll kill your family first’,” she said, her voice quivering. She said he used precisely the same words at least several other times in the months before the triple homicide.
Under cross-examination, Julia Hudson acknowledged she was still having sex with Balfour days before the slayings,
The killings happened the day after her birthday. Prosecutors say Balfour became enraged by balloons he saw at the home that he thought were from her new boyfriend.
Defense Attorney Amy Thompson suggested to jurors during opening statements that the killings may have stemmed from alleged drug dealing by Jason Hudson. Thompson said police pinned the slayings on Balfour because they felt pressured to make an arrest.
“As soon as that [that a celebrity was linked to the case] became known, they knew coverage would explode,” Thompson said. “The police were on the hook. They had to find their man and find him fast.”
Prosecutors say Balfour went inside the three-story house around 9 a.m. and used a .45-caliber handgun to kill Hudson’s mother, 57-year-old Darnell Donerson, in the living room, and then shot her 29-year-old brother, Jason Hudson, twice in the head as he lay in bed.
He allegedly drove off in Jason Hudson’s SUV with Julian inside. Authorities say he shot the boy in the head as he lay behind a front seat.
There are no known witnesses to the slayings, and it’s unclear what physical evidence exists, including fingerprints or DNA. During her opening statement, Thompson said DNA found on the gun and fingerprints found in the SUV didn’t match Balfour’s.
If convicted of at least two of the murder counts, the 30-year-old Balfour would face a mandatory life sentence.