The trial of the man accused of killing Jennifer Hudson's family opened with the marquee witness, as prosecutors put the award-winning actress and singer on the stand Monday for sometimes-tearful testimony that may well leave a lasting impression on jurors.
Hudson, wearing a simple all-black dress, broke down at one point, stopping to dab her tears and regain her composure, as she testified just yards from her former brother-in-law who prosecutors say killed her mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew in a horrific act of vindictiveness against Husdon's sister four years ago.
To the surprise of many observers, Hudson, the 2004 "American Idol" finalist and 2007 Oscar winner for her role in "Dreamgirls," was the first witness called after a prosecutor and defense attorney for William Balfour finished their opening statements. She had no testimony about shootings themselves but offered moving testimony about her family, including her reaction to her sister, Julia Hudson, telling her in 2006 she was marrying Balfour.
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"None of us wanted her to marry him," Hudson said, her voice cracking and struggling to hold back tears. "We did not like how he treated her," she said.
Asked later if she was ever friends with Balfour, whom she knew from junior high school, Hudson answered with disgust.
"Never," she said firmly. "I tried to keep my distance from William Balfour."
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, clutching a pink bag of tissues. She bowed her head and wiped 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-caliber pistol prosecutors allege is the murder weapon lay 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 and even as she leaned around the judge's bench to identify Balfour. 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 slumped in his chair, resting his head on his hand, but showed little emotion for most of the day.
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."
Julia Hudson took the stand in the afternoon, testifying that her ex-husband was so prone to jealousy, he even became angry when her young 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. I'll kill your family first," she said, her voice quivering. She said he used precisely the same words at least 25 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 in the impoverished, crime-ridden South Side neighborhood where they lived. Police, she told jurors, 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 the 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.
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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.