- Associated Press - Monday, April 23, 2012

CHICAGO (AP) - The trial of the man accused of killing Jennifer Hudson’s family opened with the marquee witness, as prosecutors put the award-winning actress and singer on the stand Monday for sometimes-tearful testimony that may well leave a lasting impression on jurors.

Hudson, wearing a simple all-black dress, broke down at one point, stopping to dab her tears and regain her composure, as she testified just yards from her former brother-in-law who prosecutors say killed her mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew in a horrific act of vindictiveness against Husdon’s sister four years ago.

To the surprise of many observers, Hudson, the 2004 “American Idol” finalist and 2007 Oscar winner for her role in “Dreamgirls,” was the first witness called after a prosecutor and defense attorney for William Balfour finished their opening statements. She had no testimony about shootings themselves but offered moving testimony about her family, including her reaction to her sister, Julia Hudson, telling her in 2006 she was marrying Balfour.

“None of us wanted her to marry him,” Hudson said, her voice cracking and struggling to hold back tears. “We did not like how he treated her,” she said.

Asked later if she was ever friends with Balfour, whom she knew from junior high school, Hudson answered with disgust.

“Never,” she said firmly. “I tried to keep my distance from William Balfour.”

Putting the star on the stand first was a shrewd move by prosecutors, according to one former federal prosecutor.

“It rivets the jury,” said Phil Turner, a Chicago attorney. “For better or worse it increases the importance of the case in jurors’ minds.”

Judge Charles Burns has instructed jurors to set aside any sympathy for Hudson, but Turner said her presence is sure to be noted. And Hudson can now sit through the rest of the trial, in full view of the jury. Witnesses typically are not allowed to watch trials until they have testified, Turner said.

“Now the jury knows everything about her and that she’s in the courtroom only accentuates that this is an important case,” he said.

When Hudson’s sister, Julia Hudson, testified later in the day about her ex-husband’s alleged threats against her family, Jennifer Hudson was watching from a fourth-row bench, clutching a pink bag of tissues. She bowed her head and wiped away tears as prosecutors played a recording of the 911 call her sister made after discovering their mother’s bloodied body.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” Julia Hudson is heard yelling at a dispatcher, who tells her to stop screaming because he can’t understand her. “My momma, my momma!”

Balfour has pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree murder in the October 2008 slayings.

A silver and black .45-caliber pistol prosecutors allege is the murder weapon lay on the prosecutor’s table not far from where Jennifer Hudson was sitting for much of the day.

With her hair up in a bun, Hudson at first seemed composed as a prosecutor began asking her questions and even as she leaned around the judge’s bench to identify Balfour. But the testimony became increasingly difficult, and she began crying when talking about seeing her family the Sunday before the killings and later when a prosecutor showed her a picture of her mother.

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