Englewood neighborhood takes center stage in Hudson slayings trial

Tribune reporters

One by one, the crime scene photos from Jennifer Hudson's childhood home beamed from a large screen in the courtroom Tuesday with the bloody images of her mother and brother sprawled lifeless on the first floor by scattered toys belonging to her 7-year-old nephew.

Up the stairs of the disheveled house, police photographed a shrine to the singer's early career with a half-dozen trophies, framed certificates and awards lining the wall.

Hudson and her sister, Julia, left the courtroom before the gruesome crime scene images were shown to the jury. But even without her presence, the photographs served as a reminder of both how far Hudson has come since leaving for Hollywood seven years ago and how little distance she has been able to put between herself and the crime-plagued street where she grew up.

For all the talk about celebrities and Academy Awards, William Balfour's trial says far less about Hudson's star power than it does about the impoverished Englewood neighborhood she once called home.

The South Side community took center stage in the second day of testimony Tuesday as three witnesses testified about Balfour's behavior on the morning that Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were killed. All three witnesses had criminal records and conflicting recollections of that day.

Hudson spent much of the day listening to testimony about drug deals and other nefarious activities in Englewood. Witness after witness depicted the neighborhood as a gritty world of drugs, guns and people with aliases such as Widget, Daddy-O, Smurf and Flex.

The defense, meanwhile, used the witnesses to paint Englewood as a dangerous, nearly lawless neighborhood where even Hudson's relatives struggled to stay clean. Hudson's brother, Jason, was a known drug dealer who carried a gun for protection and moved small amounts of cocaine near the family's large three-story home, a relative testified.

Lonnie Simpson, Jennifer Hudson's security guard and half-brother, testified that Jason Hudson's sole source of income was the $10 bags of crack he pushed on the South Side. Though he still lives in Michigan, Simpson said he spent a lot of time in Chicago helping Jason Hudson with his business.

"I sold drugs with him," he said.

Jason Hudson had been shot five times in the leg during a 2004 drug-related home invasion in Michigan, Simpson said, but he never had problems with his supplier or clients in Chicago. During his 45 minutes on the stand, Simpson tried to dispel the defense assertion that the murders stemmed from Hudson's cocaine dealing.

"He didn't have enemies," said Simpson, who also testified about popular neighborhood barbecues his half-brother hosted and how he'd taken some of the children in the neighborhood under his wing, mentoring them and telling them to stay in school.

Still, Simpson said he bought Jason Hudson a gun for protection in 2007 and later confronted Balfour about stealing it. Prosecutors allege Balfour returned the weapon but later stole it again and used it to commit the triple homicide.

It was another long day in court for Jennifer Hudson, who broke down on the witnesses stand Monday when talking about her family tragedy. As she listened to testimony about her brother's alleged criminal activity, she appeared visibly saddened, leaning forward to rest her chin in her hand as her fiance, lawyer-turned-professional wrestler David Otunga, wrapped his arm around her.

Tyrone Dunbar, 57, told jurors that he tried to purchase a dime bag of rock cocaine from Balfour on the day of the murders, but Balfour, who goes by the nickname Flex, could not break a $20 bill. The two men and another friend drove to a local convenience store, where Dunbar bought a Hostess cupcake and used the change to pay for the drugs.

Balfour did not go into the mini-mart with him because he was "dirty," a street expression for carrying a gun, Dunbar said. He testified that he never saw a gun, however.

Dunbar said he dropped Balfour near the Hudson home that morning and went to work.

A short time later, prosecutors say, Balfour fatally shot Hudson's mother, Darnell Donerson; her brother, Jason; and her 7-year-old nephew Julian King in an act of spite against Julia Hudson, who was then separated from Balfour and had rebuffed his attempts at reconciliation.

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