Jennifer Hudson arrives each day at the trial of the man accused of killing three of her close family members with her personal bodyguards in tow. She uses a secret entrance to elude photographers, eats in private and waits for proceedings to start in normally off-limits judge’s chambers.
The Oscar-winner, recently named one of the world’s 50 most beautiful women by People magazine, slips from the courtroom during particularly gory testimony.
Do the accommodations for the actress and singer add up to special star treatment?
“Absolutely not,” said Irv Miller, a judge’s liaison at the trial, which is into its second full week.
Most accommodations, he insisted, are courtesies routinely extended to victims having to endure the grim ordeal of sitting through a murder trial. Others, he conceded, are necessary because Hudson — a 2004 “American Idol” finalist and 2007 Oscar winner for her role in “Dreamgirls” — is a celebrity.
“Star status means things have to be a little different,” he said. “You just can’t have a celebrity walking about, going to the cafeteria — people running up to ask for autographs.”
Others, however, say the courthouse has gone too far.
“It’s outrageous,” Manny Medrano, a Los Angeles-based defense attorney and former television reporter who regularly comments on high-profile cases. “It sends the wrong to signal to the world — that if you are a celebrity, you won’t be treated like everyone.”
Her treatment may be a result of Chicago’s relative lack of experience with celebrity cases. In Southern California, said Medrano, people expect celebrities to be treated at court like everyone else.
The unease of the Hudson trial judge shows. He spent months compiling special decorum rules, including bans on tweets from court, and appears to eye journalists’ every move in his courtroom He threw one out for half a day after spotting her holding a pen in the corner of her mouth, deeming it a distraction.
The only recent examples of stars at Chicago’s criminal courts building were the 2008 child pornography trial of R&B singer R. Kelly and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey serving on a jury in a 2005 murder case.
Winfrey was allowed to use a hidden entrance. R. Kelly, whose trial and eventual acquittal took place in the same courtroom as the Hudson murders trial, came and left through the same front door as everyone else.
Miller said Kelly’s treatment can’t be compared to Hudson’s.
“He was a criminal defendant,” he said. “So, he wasn’t going to be accorded privileges. Not only is Hudson not a defendant, she’s a prosecution witness.”
He also said it’s not uncommon for witnesses at sensitive trials to enter through a back way.
Hudson was the first person to testify in the prosecution’s case against William Balfour, who has pleaded not guilty to murdering Hudson’s mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew. Prosecutors say he shot Hudson’s family members in a jealousy-fueled act of vengeance against his estranged wife, Hudson’s sister.
Hudson, 30, has appeared in court each day since testimony began last week, and is expected to attend each day until it ends.
Lindsay Lohan, who has had cases in different Los Angeles-area courthouses, always goes through a public entrance. Britney Spears, who sometimes goes to court for updates in her conservatorship, is brought underground and enters the courtroom through a back door.
But in 20 years observing celebrity trials, Medrano said he’s never seen any court go as far as the one in Chicago seems to have gone for Hudson.
“If Hudson got this kind of treatment in LA,” he said, “there would be an outcry.”
She brings about a half dozen bodyguards, and Medrano particularly took issue with officials allowing her to have them in court. A few of her dapperly dressed security sit close, occasionally talking into microphones up their sleeves in the manner of Secret Service protecting a president. Others keep vigil by an elevator, holding it for their boss at breaks and shooing away those not in her entourage.
But Miller insists that, in most respects, Hudson is treated like anyone else.
For instance, prosecutors told Hudson before they exhibited grisly photos of her relatives’ bullet-riddled bodies so she could leave the room. Such forewarning is standard at murder trials to avoid putting victims’ relatives through unnecessary trauma.
The way she’s getting into building is a far cry from red-carpet treatment. One possible entrance is via a tunnel connecting the courthouse to the 8-square-block jail looming next door. It would be an unsettling experience for anyone, said Steve Bogira, who wrote “Courtroom 302” about the complex and is one of few reporters to have gone into the bowels of the building.
“It was dark and dank, and deputies said it was not uncommon to see rats down there,” Bogira recalled, adding it has been about a decade since he was there. “It would be depressing for anyone. A paint job wouldn’t make it less so.”
Regardless, Hudson’s stealth entrance has been a particular source of frustration to photographers.
More than 100 journalists were accredited to cover the trial, including from web-based TMZ. Their primary goal: to snap a money shot of Hudson arriving or leaving the courthouse.
They staked out the complex in vain, though. After a few days, most packed up and left.