Is Jennifer Hudson's Tragedy All Too Common?

Jurors in Chicago recently reached a verdict in the murder case against William Balfour, the man accused of killing Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson's mother, brother, and nephew. Host Michel Martin speaks with WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore about the elements of race, class, and violence in Chicago's South Side that came into play in the trial.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, it's really not a secret that America's waistlines are getting bigger and there's a new study out that says more than 40 percent of Americans will be obese in the next 20 years if nothing changes. It's also not news that African-Americans and Latinos are at higher risk. So, what's new? Maybe the way we are talking about it. Later in the program, we are going to speak with two women who are trying to change the conversation around excess weight in a way that gets beyond cliches and hopefully gets people to pay attention. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we turn to Chicago and a verdict in a local case that made headlines and caused some sober reflections around the country and in the city. Actress and singer, Jennifer Hudson, grew up in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood - that's on the city's South Side - before she rose to stardom. She became a finalist on "American Idol" and later won an Oscar for her role in the movie, "Dream Girls," and she's also become an enthusiastic spokesperson for weight loss and healthy living.

But that Cinderella story has been punctuated by a truly awful chapter. In 2008, her mother, brother and nephew were killed. On Friday, William Balfour, the estranged husband of Jennifer Hudson's sister Julia was convicted of those crimes. He reportedly committed the murders because he was angry that she was dating another man.

But the conversations around that story have not been the ones you might expect. Our next guest is telling us that residents aren't asking how this could happen in the family of a famous actress, but rather, why is this happening to so many people?

We wanted to talk more about this. We've called Natalie Moore. She is a reporter for member station WBEZ in Chicago and she paid close attention to the trial.

Natalie, thanks so much for joining us once again.

NATALIE MOORE: It's great to be back.

MARTIN: Now, I mentioned that the neighborhood where Jennifer Hudson grew up is also the home of the NBA superstar, Derrick Rose. Could you tell us a little bit about the neighborhood and what's been going on there?

MOORE: Yes. And, also, Bernie Mac grew up in Englewood. My office is in the Englewood neighborhood, where I cover the South Side and urban issues. It's one of these areas that you often hear about when it comes to violence, unemployment, health disparities. It's mostly black, poor, in-segregated and under-resource.

Now, that's not the complete narrative of this neighborhood. There are strong black clubs. There are people who go to work and pay taxes, which, you know, to some people, may sound radical because Englewood is really painted with this broad stroke. There's a community council there. There are people who are really trying to better the neighborhood, but violence continues to mar the neighborhood.

MARTIN: But it's been reported that, at a time when cities across the country have seen a number of homicides fall - sometimes dramatically - that in Chicago, you know, homicides, for example, jumped by a whopping 60 percent in the first three months of 2012, and the violence in Englewood is a very big part of that.

Why, Natalie? Why is this happening? I mean, people generally tend to believe it's related to gangs and, you know, gang-related violence and drugs. But is it really that, in your reporting?

MOORE: I wouldn't say that it's gang-related. I think there has to be some context around violent neighborhoods and Englewood certainly is one of the most violent in Chicago, and crime has seen an uptick, but overall, crime is down in Chicago compared to 20 years ago. That doesn't mean that you overlook the violence that is happening. It doesn't mean that Englewood isn't one of the most violent neighborhoods. But I think when you're looking for solutions, policymakers, residents, black club presidents have to understand the larger picture that's here.

I would say, you know, the neighborhoods that have violence tend to be under-resource neighborhoods. There are a lot of other things that are going on. The unemployment rate is much higher in Englewood. I talked about the health disparities. You know, any disease, you know, diabetes, heart disease - it's going to be higher for residents in Englewood than in other places. There are food deserts, meaning that you can't find a place to really get groceries or fresh food. So when you compound all those issues, it makes sense that this would be one of the most violent neighborhoods because of the lack of resources and the high unemployment.

So that's my take on it. When people talk about gangs, it's usually interpersonal violence among young black men, not so-called gang violence, but you are right. Drugs are a huge issue. Drug users, drug selling. I would say that supersedes this idea of gangs.

MARTIN: You also talked about the fact that it's kind of a vicious cycle because people who can leave do leave. I mean, Jennifer Hudson herself personally does not live there. Derrick Rose personally does not live there anymore, although family members still do.

I'm joined by Chicago Public Radio's Natalie Moore. We're talking about the trial of William Balfour. He was convicted on Friday of killing Jennifer Hudson's mother, sister and nephew. Talk a little bit about the trial, if you would. Apparently, at one point, the judge received a letter or note from jurors saying that they were difficulty coming to a decision. Why is that?

MOORE: Well, there was a lot of circumstantial evidence in this case. There was very little physical evidence against William Balfour for killing the mother, brother and nephew of Jennifer Hudson, and we live in a world where we hear about DNA and fingerprints and CSI, all of these things that are in our lexicon and fingerprints and DNA were not found at the crime scenes of William Balfour. But the timeline was there. You know, he was seen in the neighborhood. Witnesses testified that they saw him with the same handgun that was used in the murders and others testified that they heard him make threats about Julia Hudson - that was his estranged wife - and the family.

And the jurors talked about - they just really wanted to piece the timeline together and they really relied on the cell phone records and they said, wherever those records said that he was, that's where he was. And his alibi fell apart. He wasn't where he said that he was and that's one of the things that won the jurors over.

MARTIN: Jennifer Hudson was in the courtroom during the trial and that did get a lot of attention. I just want to play a clip from Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez.

ANITA ALVAREZ: Her mother, her brother and her nephew were killed. She's a victim. Victim's families are sitting in the hard seats each and every day in this courthouse watching trials of where their loved ones were killed. So her celebrity status had nothing to do with the fact that she was there. It was the love of her family.

MARTIN: But do you think that her celebrity status played any role in how the case was handled or in how the jurors perceived it? It sounds that - they really struggled hard on it, so perhaps not. What's your take?

MOORE: A little bit of pressure at first because this was a high profile case, but many of them have said that Jennifer Hudson's stardom did not play a factor. But, at the same time, she was the very first witness on the very first day that prosecutors called, so it's really hard to divorce her from this. And let's be honest. This case would have been another South Side crime in Chicago had these not been relatives of Jennifer Hudson.

MARTIN: Do you feel, though, that at the end of the day, that something was learned from this? Was this - or was it, in fact, just another trial, as sad and terrible and tragic as it is for the people directly affected? But do you think that there was - is there anything transformative about this?

MOORE: I think so. I went into this trial covering it thinking, OK, this is, you know, a pretty typical murder trial, what's there. But the longer I sat in the courtroom looking at Jennifer Hudson and how far she is from where her family currently is, I thought this gave a peek into the criminal justice system and the defense tried to put Englewood on trial. And her brother, Jason Hudson, who died was also a crack dealer, as well as the convicted William Balfour. So you had all these elements come up during the trial. But ultimately, ultimately, the jury didn't really care that the brother dealt drugs or that Englewood is a violent neighborhood. They saw this as a domestic violence issue.

MARTIN: Natalie Moore is a reporter for member station WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio, and she joined us from there. Natalie, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MOORE: Thanks for having me.

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