By MICHAEL TARM, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) — Jurors shrugged off Jennifer Hudson's star status and insisted it played no role in their decision to convict her former brother-in-law for slaying the Oscar winner's mother, brother and nephew — a verdict that means the 31-year-old Chicago man will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.
"This wasn't about her," juror Jacinta Gholston said. "It was a case about William Balfour."
Just an hour before convicting Balfour of first-degree murder Friday, jurors told the judge three among them still weren't convinced of his guilt. Prosecutors said Balfour shot dead Hudson's family members in an act of spite after his estranged wife at the time, Hudson's sister, Julia Hudson, refused to reconcile.
As the verdict was read, Jennifer Hudson, sitting on a fourth-row bench, bit her lip, tears streaming down her cheeks. A minute later, she looked over at her sister and smiled.
The Hudson sisters released a statement late Friday extending a prayer to the Balfour family, saying "we have all suffered terrible loss in this tragedy."
"It is our prayer that the Lord will forgive Mr. Balfour of these heinous acts and bring his heart into repentance someday," they said.
It was overwhelming circumstantial evidence, especially cellphone records that placed Balfour in the vicinity of the killings, despite his adamant denials, that convinced the jury in the end, jurors said.
Jury foreman Robert Smith said he "was certain from the very beginning," though several others initially expressed doubts.
Going into the trial last month, some legal observers said Hudson's aura of celebrity couldn't help but affect its outcome. But asked if any of them were even fans of the singer and actress, 10 jurors who spoke to the media at a joint news conference looked at each other and shook their heads.
Jennifer Hudson was the first of 83 witnesses prosecutors called. Several times she broke down from the witness stand, including when she spoke of Balfour with undisguised disgust.
But jurors said Hudson's words on the stand, while touching, provided no actual evidence.
"We did ignore it," Gholston, a 35-year-old chocolate company employee, said about the deliberations. "There was no discussion of Jennifer Hudson."
The focus, others explained, was ensuring they were right that Balfour was, in fact, the killer. Several jurors said they had sympathy for Balfour, knowing his life as he knew it hung in the balance.
Illinois no longer has a death penalty, so Balfour faces a mandatory life prison sentence.
"Some of us tried to make him innocent," said Tracie Austin, one of the three jurors who wasn't fully convinced of his guilt as of early Friday afternoon. "We couldn't."
Still, some experts say Hudson's stardom may have influenced jurors — even if they sincerely believed it didn't.
"She is certainly quite beloved . . . so there is likely to have been very positive feelings toward her," said Edward Schwartz, a New England-based jury consultant. When a case is based almost wholly on circumstantial evidence, "likeability" factors can play an even greater role, he added.
While Balfour showed no emotion when the verdict was announced, a few of his relatives looked upset, one muttering that the verdict was unfair. As she had several times during the trial, Hudson looked back at Balfour's supporters, then whispered something to her sister.
With no surviving witnesses to the 2008 slayings, prosecutors built a convincing circumstantial case. Hudson's sister described how Balfour repeatedly threatened her, citing him as saying ominously, "'If you ever leave me, I'm going to kill you. But I'm going to kill your family first.'"
Balfour's attorneys suggested someone else in the crime-ridden neighborhood on Chicago's South Side targeted the family because of alleged crack-cocaine dealing by Jennifer Hudson's brother.
Public defender Amy Thompson said Friday she would appeal the verdict.
Hudson, 30, rose to prominence as a 2004 "American Idol" finalist. She became a bona fide star after winning the 2007 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the movie "Dreamgirls."
She attended every day of testimony, sobbing when photos of her relatives' bloodied, bullet-ridden bodies were displayed to jurors. Several jurors, too, said they would never forget the images.