Potential jurors got their first look Thursday at the man accused in the 2008 slayings of actress and singer Jennifer Hudson's mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew ahead of trial testimony set to begin later this month.
When Judge Charles Burns introduced, a deferential William Balfour tugged nervously on his tie as he turned to face the some 150 would-be jurors, and said firmly, "Good afternoon, everybody." Many of the would-be jurors responded in unison: "Good afternoon.'"
The offbeat moment came in a Chicago courtroom just before the judge read a 300-name list of potential witnesses that includes Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson. Prosecutors allege Balfour, the estranged husband of Hudson's sister, shot the family in a jealous rage because Julia Hudson was dating another man.
The 30-year-old defendant appeared in court wearing a white dress shirt, yellow tie and shiny black shoes. His hair -- bushy and disheveled in previous court appearances -- was newly cut short per the judge's order earlier this week.
The pool of potential jurors filled out questionnaires that will help determine if they will be among the 12 jurors and six alternates who will sit in judgment of Balfour. It's a practice not uncommon in
high profile trials, explained DePaul Law Professor Stephan Landsman.
"What have people seen on television, heard on the radio, and read in the newspapers? Those kinds of background questions are critical because you don't want jurors sitting on the case who have gathered a great deal of information or think they have," he said. "We live in a media-saturated world, and you're not going to find people who have no information about the parties here, but what you're looking for is people who can be fair."
Some of those crowded on the courtroom benches gasped and their eyes widened when the judge read the name of the case and the indictment, presumably realizing for the first time they might be part of the high-profile, celebrity trial. When the judge asked if anyone was closely acquainted with any of the witness names he read, about 10 of the possible jurors raised their hands.
Jennifer Hudson, 30, who won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 2007 for her role in "Dreamgirls" and a Grammy for best R&B album the same year of the killings, did not attend proceedings on Thursday, though she is expected to attend once testimony gets under way.
Standing at his high judge's bench, occasionally pacing, Judge Burns spoke at length about the gravity of jurors' duties if selected. Striking a professorial tone, he emphasized repeatedly that they should not allow anything they have heard about the killings to affect their judgment.
"Cases in our country are not tried on street corners or over dinner or in the media," the lanky gray-haired judge told them. "They are tried in the courtroom."
Potential jurors should avoid reading, listening to or watching the news, and they should not surf the Internet, the judge instructed them sternly.
"No Twitter, no Facebook, no LinkedIn," he said.
Burns has also strictly barred reporters from tweeting or posting messages to Facebook from inside the courtroom, a court spokesman explaining that he didn't want constant typing on cell phones to distract jurors and other courtroom participants.
In another bid to ensure the intense media interest in the case doesn't undercut the process, jury names will be kept secret until after the verdict in an effort to prevent reporters or others trying to contact the panelists during the trial.
Jennifer Hudson reportedly told investigators she talked to her mother in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood every day and knew something was wrong when she hadn't heard from her by late in the morning of Oct. 24, 2008.
Several hours later, Hudson's mother, Darnell Donerson, 57, and brother, Jason Hudson, 29, were found shot to death in the family's home. The body of her nephew Julian King was found days later in a vehicle several miles away.