In the end, the Jennifer Hudson factor didn’t matter, said jurors who convicted the superstar’s former brother-in-law Friday of killing her mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew.
Despite special security and other hoopla surrounding the Oscar winner and her entourage at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, once the six men and six women of the jury took their seats for 13 days of trial, the singer’s star power faded from their minds and their focus turned to the witness stand.
“This wasn’t a case about Jennifer Hudson for us,” said juror Jacinta Gholston, a 35-year-old customer service representative at World’s Finest Chocolate. “This was a case about William Balfour. . . . And so for us, her celebrity really had nothing to do with it. It’s unfortunate that it was her family but this was not for us the Jennifer Hudson Case. This was the people of Illinois v. William Balfour.”
Adan Jimenez, 27, a fitness center worker from Tinley Park, agreed that celebrity played no role. “The media or Jennifer Hudson or her celebrity status never came into it,” he said. “Jennifer Hudson’s name was never mentioned.”
Strangers when they were chosen in early April, Balfour’s jurors took some 18 hours over three days and two sequestered nights to reach a decision in a careful process they characterized, after announcing their guilty verdict, as “very cordial” and “pretty organized.”
Jimenez said there was very little drama behind closed doors. “There wasn’t much animosity or anything,” he said.
Four of them, surrounded by six others who kept silent, laid out what happened in the jury room starting Wednesday a little before 5 p.m. A fifth juror – Jimenez – spoke to the Sun-Times later Friday.
First they elected a foreman: 42-year-old Chicago Public Schools bus aide Robert Smith.
Then Gholston came up with the plan: The group would go through the witnesses one by one. They’d vote on how credible, how important each one’s testimony was. They’d cross off the evidence that didn’t fit. They’d stomach the crime scene photos again. They’d dig in deep to the evidence and sort it all out, knowing they’d have no verdict right away.
Because at trial, jurors heard from 84 witnesses – 83 of them called by prosecutors – who laid out small circumstantial pieces of the October day Darnell Donerson, Jason Hudson and Julian King died. Each of them had something to say, no matter their convictions or careers or drug habits, said Paula Halcomb, a junior high math teacher from the south suburbs.
“We really took everything apart before we started to piece it back together,” Halcomb said. “I think we really took our time with all of the testimony, all of the witnesses, one at a time.”
They quickly eliminated Hudson, whom prosecutors called first not only to identify the bodies but also to set a time frame for the shootings.
“She didn’t say anything,” Tracie Austin said.
They requested transcripts, and asked Judge Charles P. Burns whether Balfour had keys to the Hudson family home.
Released at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, they were sequestered to an area hotel for the night. Some had already packed bags, Gholston said.
Thursday they regrouped by 10:30 a.m. They ate lunch and dinner, a late afternoon snack. They kept sorting. They were freed at about 6 p.m. and sent back to the hotel. They didn’t yet know where anybody stood. They sent no word.
Friday morning, a quick vote showed sides: Nine firm guilty votes. Three undecided jurors included Gholston and Austin.
Halcomb already believed Balfour guilty. The FBI agent who tracked Balfour’s cell phone throughout the city on Oct. 24, 2008, impressed her.
“The cell phone records were key,” she said.
For Smith, the keys to Jason Hudson’s white SUV sealed the deal.
“Why would you have the keys in your pocket from a guy you didn’t like to a truck you’re not supposed to be in that just so happens to have a dead nephew in the back?” he wondered, calling police’s failure to test them for three years “real sloppy.”
At 10:20 a.m., jurors asked Burns for videos showing Balfour’s green car parked outside Robeson high school and his police interrogation.
“There were three of us who just needed to see the picture a little clearer,” Gholston said. “There were still some holes or some gaps that needed to be filled in. It all came down to timing issues and ‘mistakes’ made by the Chicago Police department.”
Another note went to the judge at 2:30 p.m. asking for more cell phone evidence but warning the judge they were split. “Please continue deliberating,” he wrote back.
Jimenez said evidence about the whereabouts of Balfour’s cell phone brought the conviction home.
“The location of Will’s cell phone at certain times . . . that kind of matched up with certain witnesses’ testimonies. We broke it down in detail and kind of matched everything together. Ultimately it convinced the three other jurors.”
An hour later, Austin and the other two undecideds made up their minds.
“Some of us tried our best to make him innocent,” Austin said. “But the facts and everything just isn’t there.”
Jurors signed guilty verdicts in all counts. A little before 5 p.m., they stood one by one in open court to answer the judge’s question: Was this then and is this now your verdict?
Contributing: Stefano Esposito, Art Golab, Mark Konkol