Darnell Donerson was the kind of mother who texted her adult daughters every day – the younger a world famous singer and Academy Award-winning actress who was always on the road, and the elder, a single mother who lived with Donerson in the family’s Englewood home.
So when neither Jennifer Hudson nor her sister Julia heard from their mother on Oct. 24, 2008, they knew something was terribly wrong, the sisters testified Monday during the first day of the trial of the man accused of killing their mother, brother and Julia Hudson’s 7-year old son, Julian King.
“I noticed that – I’m looking to see the text from my mom, and it wasn’t any,” Jennifer Hudson said in a soft voice. “I kept sitting there wondering, ‘Like that’s strange.’ That was the first thing I said, ‘My mom didn’t text me.’ ”
Hudson, in Florida at the time with her fiance, then fell back asleep. She awoke to tragic news from her hysterical sister in Chicago: Their mother was dead.
The news got worse. They soon learned their 29-year-old brother, Jason, was shot twice in the head as he lay in bed. Julian King, 7, remained missing, soon to be found facedown with two gunshot wounds to his head in the back of his uncle’s white SUV on the West Side. A shower curtain Julia Hudson had purchased while trying to patch up things with her then-estranged husband, William Balfour, covered the child, Cook County prosecutors said.
Balfour, a drug dealer who attended grade school with Jennifer Hudson, was never well-liked in the Hudson family, according to the actress.
She even said she warned her sister against marrying Balfour, but they wed secretly in a ceremony only Julian attended.
“None of us – myself, my mother, or my brother – we did not like how he treated her, and I didn’t like how he treated my nephew,” Jennifer Hudson testified, her voice wavering.
In a black dress, small studs in her ears and a bare face, the actress was called to testify about the last time she saw her family alive. They gathered in her Chicago home. Her mother and brother flanked her as she played the piano, her nephew hunkered in a corner reading a book. Even her brother’s dog, Dreamgirl, joined them, Jennifer Hudson said, tears in her eyes: “It was us being family.”
The next time she saw them, they were lying in the Cook County morgue.
“That’s my mommy,” Jennifer Hudson said when assistant state’s attorney James McKay held up a picture of Donerson, the 57-year-old secretary of the church where Hudson started singing.
Hudson told jurors she was so close to her mother, she slept with her until she was 16. Even after she skyrocketed to fame, she kept tabs on her family and sent presents. Seven to eight blank checks she left for her mother to pay bills were later found in Donerson’s purse; the balloons she sent to her sister for her birthday remained in the hallway after the bodies were found in the 7000 block of South Yale.
If Jennifer Hudson’s appearance was the highlight of the trial that brought throngs of press from around the country, her celebrity was also the reason, Balfour’s attorneys said, police were quick to accuse him of the grisly slayings.
“The police were on the hook,” assistant public defender Amy Thompson said during her opening statement.
“From the moment they first got that name, they have been spending their time building a case rather than investigating a crime,” she said.
Thompson said police should have considered Jason Hudson’s associates as possible suspects, including a next-door neighbor who ran errands for him. Describing Jason Hudson as a drug dealer, Thompson said he attracted “dangerous” individuals. Before the murders, he had been shot on two separate occasions, causing him to lose half of his left leg, Thompson said.
“He was involved in a dangerous business, and it brought danger to him, and he lived in Englewood, probably the most dangerous neighborhood in Chicago if not one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States,” she said.
Of the physical evidence, none is tied to Balfour, 30, Thompson said, even the DNA found on the .45 caliber weapon used in the murders. Thompson also wondered why Julia Hudson would continue her sexual relationship with Balfour into October 2008 if she feared him.
Julia Hudson admitted she never called police after Balfour made deadly threats. “If you leave me, you will be the last to die. I’m going to kill your family first,” she said Balfour told her more than two dozen times after their February 2008 separation.
“I didn’t believe him,” she said.
But when police questioned her about the shootings, Julia Hudson could think of only one person.
The couple grew apart after Julia Hudson went on a “Dreamgirls” publicity tour in Japan in 2007 and Balfour soon juggled three girlfriends she knew about, Julia Hudson said.
He called her son a “little monster” and told the affectionate child, “Don’t kiss my wife,” Julia Hudson said. And when Balfour learned his wife, who was a school bus driver, was embarking on a romantic relationship with a co-worker, he wouldn’t accept it.
When Julia Hudson returned home, she noticed a fresh bullet hole in the door and her son’s piggy bank on the porch. She slowly turned the doorknob and glimpsed her mom’s body in a pool of blood.
Running out, screaming, Julia Hudson called 911.
“Somebody killed my mother. Please help me,” jurors heard on the chilling 911 tape played in Judge Charles Burns’ courtroom. “My momma. My momma.”