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Actress Jennifer Hudson's star power may influence murder trial proceedings

William Balfour and Jennifer Hudson
AP/Cook County Sheriff's Department/Getty Images
(CBS/AP) CHICAGO - Proceedings begin Monday in the murder trial of William Balfour, accused of murdering Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson's mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew.

Judge Charles Burns plans to start questioning would-be jurors one by one, trying to weed out anyone who could be swayed by Hudson's celebrity status.

Hudson is expected to be at the trial every day once testimony begins, court officials say. She is also on the 300-name list of witnesses who could testify.

Legal experts widely agree on the No. 1 challenge at trials involving megastars. It is the task of identifying 12 jurors able and willing to assess guilt solely on what they hear in court.

This dilemma became clear last week, when 150 potential jurors filled out their questionnaires in court. Nine of the 66 questions dealt with Hudson's career: Would-be jurors were asked if they'd ever seen her Academy Award-winning film "Dreamgirls" and if they belong to an organization for which Hudson is a spokesperson, presumably a reference to Weight Watchers.

It was obvious many potential jurors had heard of the killings with some gasping when the judge first read the name of the case.

When Burns asked if anyone felt they couldn't hear the evidence "without sympathy, bias or prejudice" to step up, he looked on with apparent alarm as five, 15, and then 20 people rose. He finally told everyone to sit down and disregard the question, for now.

Hudson will need to refrain from overt displays of emotion as potentially starstruck jurors' eyes dart back at her, said Gerald Uelmen, a defense attorney at O.J. Simpson's murder trial.

The risk is that jurors may be watching her rather than testifying witnesses, and they could be influenced by how she reacts," he said. "She would be well advised not to engage in any facial expressions or outbursts. That could be grounds for a mistrial."

Prosecutors say Balfour, the 30-year-old estranged husband of Hudson's sister, shot the family in a jealous rage because Julia Hudson was dating another man.

The bodies of Hudson's mother, Darnell Donerson, 57, and brother, Jason Hudson, 29, were found shot to death in the family's home on Oct. 24, 2008. The body of her nephew, Julian King, was found days later in a vehicle several miles away.

Balfour's attorneys have said the evidence is circumstantial although prosecutors say proof he committed the crime will include gun residue found on his car's steering wheel.

Judges don't insist jurors be blank slates but they merely want to know if jurors can set aside their biases and preconceptions, said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles.

"You certainly don't want a juror who hasn't heard of Jennifer Hudson, for instance," Levenson said. "That would raise other serious questions, like, where's this person been living - under a rock?"

Complete coverage of the Hudson family murders on Crimesider

  • Crimesider Staff

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