Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson never liked her former brother-in-law. Not even when the two attended the same elementary school.
Years later William Balfour charmed his way into the life of Hudson’s older sister, Julia. In December 2006, the couple snuck and married. Fourteen months later, they separated.
Last week a Chicago jury convicted Balfour of killing Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother and seven-year-old nephew – Julia’s son. Balfour faces a mandatory life prison sentence.
In 2008, Julia Hudson found her mother Darnell Donerson, 57, and brother Jason Hudson, 29, shot to death in their South Side home. A few days later, police recovered Julian King’s body in Jason’s stolen SUV. Like his uncle, the little boy was shot in the head and died in a pool of his own blood.
Three and a half years later, the Chicago trial began with media fanfare. It appeared to be a no-frills murder case: alibis, familiar lingo from television cop dramas, and dry forensic testimony. But the longer I sat in the courtroom with my notepad, the more layers I observed.
Some lament the trial’s sensationalist nature with all eyes on Jennifer Hudson at a time when one should never have to endure the public spotlight, much less be gracious.
On some days the local and national media packed the first few rows of the courtroom, sitting on the benches as tight as churchgoers on Easter Sunday. The Cook County Criminal Courthouse is a parade of Black and brown male faces in the defendant chair. Had this not been dubbed inelegantly, “The Jennifer Hudson Family Murder Trial,” this case would’ve been a newspaper brief.
But if this was the South Side crime picked for getting all the attention, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We can learn from it.
Prosecutors painted the murders as deadly domestic violence. Defense attorneys put the South Side neighborhood where the murders occurred on trial.
The Hudson siblings grew up in the Englewood neighborhood. Today, the white frame house they once lived in is boarded up and lingers on the block as a haunting reminder of the grisly murders.
Englewood is mostly poor and Black. Grocery stores are scarce. Unemployment is high. Health disparities are blatant. Police struggle to reduce the high crime rates. In the local media, the community is typically covered in the recognizable “if it bleeds, it leads” lens.
Balfour’s attorneys never shied from reminding the jury that Englewood is one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. His public defender went so far to suggest Englewood is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America.
Englewood also thrives with strong block clubs, a cultural council and an urban agriculture task force. The idea is to take community deficits – vacant, blighted land – and turn them into community assets – small farms to grow fresh produce. And as radical as it may sound, people work and pay taxes like residents in other under-resourced urban enclaves.
The defense used a scary stereotype as a crutch.
The jury didn’t buy the big, Black, scary neighborhood meme. Jurors believed Julia Hudson when she testified that Balfour told her at least 25 times, “If you leave me, you’ll be the last to die. I’ll kill your family first.”
Prosecutors successfully argued that Balfour was resentful and jealous. The final snap for Balfour was learning that his estranged wife had another man in her life. Witnesses testified seeing him with Jason Hudson’s stolen gun. They also recalled hearing Balfour make threats to Julia and speak of her family with disdain.
The trial provided plenty of cringe-worthy testimony. Balfour and Jason Hudson sold dime bags of crack. Customers and friends went on the record to say so. Balfour’s attorneys had an alternate theory for the murders: Jason’s lifestyle in the drug business. After all, it is Englewood, right?
Jennifer Hudson, in her new svelte Weight Watchers body, attended the trial every day with her sister and fiancé. Her demure glamour illustrated that she’s a long way from her family’s modest lifestyle.
There’s trope about “making it” out of the hood. We hear these feel-good stories about athletes and celebrities. Bulls point guard Derrick Rose and the late comedian Bernie Mac (who just got an honorary street named after him) also hail from Englewood. The story trails off from there.
Do you ever really leave your community? Watching Jennifer Hudson in the courtroom, I wondered how she negotiates how she’s worlds apart from her family all the while loving them. The physical distance from her neighborhood doesn’t matter. The story I want to hear from the red-carpet star is not how she made it but how she’s maintaining.
The judge put a gag order the case. But Jennifer Hudson hurried out of the courthouse after the verdict once it was lifted. She and Julia put out a statement soon after thanking law enforcement and extending a prayer to the Balfour family.
Jennifer Hudson testified on the first day of the trial as the first witness. That’s when she displayed her own disdain for her former brother-in-law.
When asked what her brother did for a living, she answered that she didn’t know.
Maybe she wanted to forget.