FALL RIVER, Mass. – Lesa Strachan stands a little over 5-feet tall, wears her hair short and works as an area operations manager here in the small towns of southeastern Massachusetts. She is everyone. She is no one.
She is not, for sure, rich or famous or celebrated, like Aaron Hernandez, the NFL star turned murder defendant who was standing across a Bristol County courtroom from her Wednesday morning.
Lesa Strachan was the forewoman in Hernandez's murder case, personally selected by the judge because her intelligence and seriousness and leadership were easy to identify. As part of her job, Strachan had to rise up, look at Hernandez and read the verdict. She had to do something for perhaps the first time ever.
She had to hold Aaron Hernandez accountable for his actions.
"Guilty of murder in the first degree," Strachan said to the court.
Moments later, Hernandez was forced by a court officer to sit down, no longer afforded the right to stand like the presumed innocent. He was just another convict now, just another prisoner, just another punk … life without parole at age 25.
Lesa Strachan, slight of stature, dropped Aaron Hernandez like no linebacker ever could, called his bluff like no one else ever apparently would.
She ended his pretend gangster life of guns and tattoos and pseudo-toughness and shipped him off to prison, shipped him off to Walpole, just around the corner from Gillette Stadium where they once cheered his name and handed him $40 million contracts.
Hernandez tried to hide his emotions but couldn't quite pull it off. He shook his head at the jury and mouthed, "You're wrong," in a last futile attempt at intimidation. He looked at his sobbing fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, and his mother Terri, and told them to "stay strong, stay strong." Neither one was, fleeing the court before he was even sentenced.
Finally, there was a brief moment. He was seated between his attorneys, with two burly bailiffs eyeing his every move before they threw ankle and wrist shackles on him.
Hernandez sort of leaned back and emitted a soft sigh, the first flash of reality finally settling in.
Aaron Hernandez had gotten away with everything, forever, perhaps even a couple of murders. A sucker punch back in 2007 at a University of Florida bar that left a bouncer with a ruptured eardrum ended with no one pressing charges because, well, it's a college town and he was a potential football star.
An incident in 2007 where two men were shot in their car after a dispute with some Gator players, including a man described as a muscular, heavily tattooed "Hawaiian" who matched Hernandez's description, didn't go far either.
Up in Boston, as a New England Patriot, police knew Hernandez, back in 2012, was at the same club as a group who upon leaving were ambushed at a stop light, leaving two dead, one wounded. Hernandez wasn't considered a suspect because, why would one of Tom Brady's favorite targets be involved in that?
In February of 2013, the shooting of a friend right between the eyes after a night at a South Florida strip club, went nowhere because the friend wouldn't testify; he just wanted to sue Hernandez for some riches, figuring he'd get a settlement because he was present for the Boston drive-by.
This was the absurd life Hernandez lived at a million miles an hour. Failed drug tests in college meant nothing. In the pros, the NFL system was just too easy to beat. Fame earned him the benefit of doubt, and if that wasn't enough, the ability to make everyone money bought him silence.
He never had to be responsible for anything. He treated half his family like dirt, his friends like employees and his fiancée like a doormat.
One of the narratives of Hernandez that proved inaccurate in the face of three months of court testimony is that his hometown of Bristol, Conn., and the gangsters and criminals from it, dragged him down. None of that was true.
He wanted that life, coveted that life, embraced that silly life, where the slightest sign of disrespect meant blasting away. The people he was around, the "gang" if you will, were cheap criminals and small-town thugs – Fish, Charlie Boy, Alexander Bradley, he of the now one eye? They took their orders from Hernandez, glomming onto his NFL millions, not the other way around.
Catching Super Bowl passes wasn't enough for Hernandez. The $1.3 million, 7,100-square-foot home in suburbs wasn't either. The loyal girlfriend and beautiful baby meant nothing. The fame and adulation were taken for granted.
Hernandez wanted to be tough, or some warped definition of the term. He wasn't tough. He isn't tough. He could ink up all the "Blood Sweat Tears" he wanted across his body but he didn't know the meaning of tough.
Sucker punches and drive-by shootings and needing three guys and a Glock .45 to attack an unarmed landscaper in a deserted field in the middle of the night is the opposite of tough.
He just played the part and caught the passes and for so long that was enough. That was all anyone cared about. All behavior was either excused or not pursued or ignored all together. He could play football, so the Patriots owner hailed his personal growth – "He's a super player and really a first-class guy," Robert Kraft said in 2012, a month after the double homicide in Boston – and the schools down in Bristol got him to cut a video to lecture young students about the values needed to get out, to climb up.
"Make sure you listen to your teachers," Hernandez told them, according to the New York Daily News.
Even his defense team tried to wish it all away. He'd paid the group a bundle and they were damn fine lawyers, but there was nothing here to work with. They had to admit he was at the scene. They had to acknowledge he drove the car that night. They could only attempt to claim that maybe it was a remote control, not the murder weapon, he was carrying in the home videos.
Even some of the best legal minds in Massachusetts were left falling back on the oldest of excuses for young talent, the lamest of get-out-of-trouble free cards, that he was just dumb and naïve and deserving of a second chance.
"He was a 23-year-old kid who witnessed something shocking – a killing committed by somebody he knew," defense attorney James Sultan argued, blaming it on someone else and mimicking who knows how many others from Hernandez's past.
Lesa Strachan and her fellow jurors didn't buy it, didn't buy a word of it, didn't, it seems, buy anything that the defense was selling for weeks. When the jury members met with the media after the verdict and was asked what part of the Hernandez smoke-screen defense was compelling, they offered weak smiles and nervous laughs and a "no comment."
"The evidence was compelling," juror Sean Traverse said.
Did they consider the defense argument that it was the other guys with him, hopped up on PCP? Please. How about the testimony from Shayanna Jenkins about how when she hauled a box with who knows what in it to a who-knows-where dumpster, it was just an innocent coincidence? More nervous laughs and shaken heads.
Deliberations, they said, took a week because there was so much evidence to go through – 135 witnesses, 439 exhibits. They wanted to be fair to Hernandez. They wanted to follow the guidelines. They wanted to be precise with the law.
Doubts and debate, there didn't appear to be much of either.
He'd gotten away with everything, forever, until his arrogance got the better of him – killing his own friend right near his home, leaving footprints and DNA behind, returning a rental car with a shell casing in it, failing to erase his own home security system. It was a mountain of self-created evidence.
His own stupidity proved to be the prosecution's best witness.
"You're wrong," Hernandez mouthed toward the jury as Shayanna wailed in pain and apparent disbelief, although that could've been just another act, too.
The jury never flinched. Not a single one of them.
Aaron Hernandez wasn't as tough as he thought. His tattoos and vicious looks didn't scare anyone anymore. His ability to catch passes over the middle carried no value.
Not when he was staring up at Lesa Strachan, no-nonsense Lesa Strachan, with a verdict sheet in her hand.
“It was the hardest thing that I've done in my life,” Strachan said.
So hard it sat Aaron Hernandez down, sat him down and out forever.