By Stacy St. Clair and Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune reporters
April 28, 2012
Stepping off the elevator in stiletto boots and a black skirt, Jennifer Hudson draws a few sideways glances as she walks with her entourage to a Cook County courtroom where her former brother-in-law is standing trial in the killings of her mother, brother and nephew.
Not a single onlooker, however, says a word or tries to approach her. No one even offers a sympathetic smile.
Hudson's protective bubble remains unpierced inside the courtroom, where only three members of the public have waited in line that day to watch the proceedings. She takes a seat in the fourth row and bows her head.
In a courthouse known for its grittiness and lack of decorum, Hudson is given rare deference. People have largely left her alone during the first week of the high-profile trial, going so far as to stay out of the courtroom on most days and resisting the urge to snap pictures of her with their cellphones.
Even two groups of star-struck high school girls who attended Friday's proceedings kept their distance.
County employees had worried about a more chaotic scene with a media frenzy and public fawning greater than even those shown at the Rod Blagojevich or R. Kelly trials.
Those concerns, however, have not yet materialized thanks to Hudson's intentionally low-profile, the judge's strict courtroom rules and the public's apparent willingness to give Hudson some space.
"I wouldn't bother her," said Channelle Jones, who saw Hudson while she waited for a friend's case to be called in another courtroom. "The girl has been through enough. She doesn't need people all in her face."
Jones is one of the few people who have seen Hudson outside the courtroom. Except for the brief moments when she walks from the elevators to a secluded waiting area each day, the Academy Award-winning actress does not mix with the general public.
Prosecutors planned it like this to keep their most famous — and most sympathetic — witness away from the spotlight during the proceedings. They have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect her, including driving her to the courthouse each morning and allowing her to enter through a back door.
Hudson rides a private elevator to the fifth floor each morning, then waits in a small conference room adjacent to the courtroom for testimony to begin. At the midday break, she returns to the same conference room, where she eats a lunch brought in by someone in her entourage. If she needs a bathroom break, security guards clear the restroom so she can have some privacy.
She does not enter or exit through the courthouse lobby each day like Blagojevich or Kelly did in their trials, preventing daily photographs or videos of her to stoke the public's interest. No mainstream media have snapped a photo of Hudson at the courthouse, though not for lack of trying. Photographers staked out alternative entrances to the courthouse on the first day of testimony, with one news agency placing a deer stand along 26th Street in the hope of getting a shot of her coming in through the back door.
"Is the state taking extreme measures to protect her? I think I would do the same thing if I was a prosecutor in this case," says Terry Sullivan, a former Cook County assistant state's attorney who is serving as the judge's media liaison during the trial. "That's the difference between a celebrity defendant and a celebrity who is a victim."
Prosecutors are not the only ones taking extreme measures. Fearing a carnival-like atmosphere similar to those at Michael Jackson's child-abuse trial or Casey Anthony's murder case, Judge Charles Burns established a firm set of decorum rules and required the more than 100 credentialed reporters covering the trial to sign it before being admitted into his courtroom.
His rules include a ban on tweeting and denying entrance to journalists who had not checked in with the media liaison 15 minutes before the day's session. He demonstrated his tight-fisted control over the media during the first week by kicking out a TV reporter whose cellphone rang as the jury was being shown gruesome crime-scene photos.
Two days later, another TV reporter was thrown out after Burns complained that she was chewing on her pen, typing on her phone too much and did not immediately stand when the jury entered. Other journalists spoke with the judge the following morning and the reporter was allowed back in later that day.
"There were a few hiccups," said Penny Mateck, spokeswoman for the Cook County sheriff's office, which oversees courthouse security. "But as the week has gone on, things have been going smoothly."
Cook County has handled large cases before, and Burns' rules largely reflect the playbook used during the R. Kelly trial and Brown's Chicken murder trials. In everything from media credentialing to transporting jurors from an off-site parking location, the logistical arrangements have been almost identical. The proceedings are being held in the same courtroom.
The past cases — which went relatively smoothly amid heavy public interest — made holding the William Balfour trial easier, Sullivan said.
"When it comes to famous cases, everybody in this building knows how to do it now," Sullivan said. "Everybody has learned what works, and they're sticking with it."
Despite the heavy media interest, spectator turnout has been lower than many expected. Courthouse officials said they believe it's partly because of rules that require the public to sign up for seats the day before and partly because of the horrific nature of the case.
Prosecutors say Balfour fatally shot Hudson's mother, Darnell Donerson; brother Jason Hudson; and 7-year-old nephew, Julian King, in an act of spite against the singer's sister, Julia, then Balfour's estranged wife. The two had been separated for more than eight months at the time of the Oct. 24, 2008, slayings, and she had rejected his attempts at reconciliation.
The grizzly nature of the evidence gives the trial an entirely different tone from the R. Kelly case, which featured a sex tape and lacked a complaining witness. The crime scene and autopsy photos — which show all three victims shot multiple times — are so gruesome that Jennifer Hudson stayed out of the courtroom when they were shown to the jury.
Three women who signed up to watch Friday's proceedings acknowledged that they were there in part to see the Chicago star. But they said their main focus was to see justice, and they also wanted to let Hudson know she had the support of not just her family, but also the community.
"People have been respectful of the fact that this is a very tragic event in the life of the Hudson family," Mateck said. "The trial is not being treated as entertainment."
The public attendance, at times, has been as low as Hudson's intentionally downplayed profile. In the months leading up to the trial, she had declined interview requests about the case and not mentioned it on her social media accounts. She does not shill for public sympathy in the building like Blagojevich, who shook hands with everyone he encountered at the courthouse, or Michael Jackson, who danced atop his car to entertain onlookers.
Instead she and her entourage keep to themselves, almost never interacting with anyone else. She is accompanied each day by about a half-dozen security guards, most of whom wait quietly outside the courtroom during testimony.
Courthouse officials say Hudson and her entourage have not made any demands and have never been late to the trial.
The judge became upset Friday when a miscommunication allowed the Hudson sisters — who had briefly stepped out to avoid hearing a police officer testify about finding Julian's body — to enter the courtroom in the middle of a witness's testimony. Worried that it could distract the jury, Burns angrily called the attorneys from both sides into his chambers for a private conversation.
Hudson otherwise does little to draw attention to herself in court, opting to bow her head and stare at the floor when she hears upsetting testimony. On Friday, as the Hudson sisters walked by, Balfour's mother snapped, "Why the hell are they looking at me?" But neither sister reacted.
At the end of most days, Hudson looks visibly tired but shows no other outward signs of emotion.
"From what I've seen, she has been gracious to everyone," Sullivan said. "But she is like a girl in a balloon. No one really gets that close to her here."
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