Oscar-winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson broke down in court after prosecutors put her on the witness stand as the trial of the man accused of killing her family opened.
Hudson, wearing a subdued black dress, stopped to dab her tears and try to regain composure as she gave evidence just yards from the man prosecutors say killed her mother, brother and seven-year-old nephew in a fit of jealous nearly rage four years ago.
Hudson, the 2004 American Idol finalist and 2007 Oscar winner for her role in 'Dreamgirls', was the first witness called after prosecutors and lawyers for her brother-in-law William Balfour finished their opening statements at the Chicago court.
While she could not tell jurors details about the shootings themselves, she offered 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.”
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 lawyer. “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 Mr Turner said her presence was sure to be noted.
When Julia Hudson testified later in the day about her ex-husband’s alleged threats against her family, Jennifer was watching from a fourth-row bench. She bowed her head and wiped away tears as prosecutors played a recording of the call to police her sister made in October 2008 after discovering their mother’s body.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” Julia Hudson is heard yelling at a dispatcher, who tells her to stop screaming because he cannot understand her. “My momma, my momma!”
Balfour, 30, denies three counts of first-degree murder.
A silver and black pistol said to be 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 evidence 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 walked slowly across the court 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 say Balfour repeatedly threatened Julia Hudson and her family after the couple separated. Their divorce was finalised last year.
Julia Hudson said her ex-husband was so prone to jealousy that 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. I’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 murder.
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.
Defence lawyer Amy Thompson suggested to jurors during opening statements that the killings may have stemmed from alleged drug dealing by Jennifer Hudson’s brother Jason, 29, one of the murder victims. She said police pinned the killings on Balfour because they felt pressured to make an arrest.
Prosecutors say Balfour went inside the three-storey house at around 9am and used a .45-calibre handgun to kill Hudson’s mother, Darnell Donerson, 57, in the living room, then shot 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 killings and it is unclear what physical evidence exists, including fingerprints or DNA. During her opening statement, Ms Thompson said DNA found on the gun and fingerprints found in the SUV did not match Balfour’s.