Aaron Hernandez is a convicted murderer again.
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the controversial state doctrine of abatement ab initio, a rule that allows for convictions to be thrown out if the convicted die while the case is still under appeal.
Hernandez was found guilty in 2015 of first-degree murder in the death of Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player and Hernandez’s potential brother in law. Lloyd was found shot to death in an undeveloped part of an industrial park near Hernandez’s North Attleboro, Massachusetts, home. Hernandez was a member of the New England Patriots at the time.
Hernandez committed suicide in 2017 while incarcerated for that crime. By doing so before the full appeal of the case was heard, his attorneys were initially able to argue that under the doctrine, Hernandez maintained a presumption of innocence during the appeal. As such, the doctrine allowed the conviction to be thrown out, making Hernandez, technically, a man innocent of murder.
That ruling has potential ramifications for Hernandez’s daughter to seek compensation and a pension from his football career, as well as protect whatever remains of Hernandez’s estate from civil suits from the Lloyd family.
In a unanimous opinion after an appeal from prosecutors, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the doctrine should no longer be followed and death during appeal should simply end the appeal, not the original conviction.
“We conclude that the doctrine of abatement ab initio is outdated and no longer consonant with the circumstances of contemporary life, if, in fact, it ever was,” the opinion stated. “Rather, when a defendant dies irrespective of cause, while a direct appeal as of right challenging his conviction is pending, the proper course is to dismiss the appeal as moot and note in the trial court record that the conviction removed the defendant's presumption of innocence, but that the conviction was appealed and neither affirmed nor reversed because the defendant died.”
The elimination of the doctrine, the court ruled, should not merely be practiced going forward, but appeal to the specific Hernandez case brought as the centerpiece of this argument.
The court even noted that Hernandez’s apparent understanding of the doctrine, and the benefits it might provide, may have served as a motivation for him to take his own life.
Hernandez, perhaps believing abatement would allow for his NFL pension and uncollected salary to become available, even wrote in a suicide note to his fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins, “You’re rich.”
While the court didn’t make a determination of why Hernandez decided to kill himself, it wrote in a footnote about the possibility, which for Hernandez or prisoners going forward was concerning and counter to the intent of the law.
“There are suggestions that the cause of death was suicide and that the defendant may have been aware of the doctrine of abatement ab initio and its potential financial implications for his family, but, given our ruling, we need not, and do not, reach any conclusions in that regard, including as to the sufficiency of any such evidence,” the court wrote.
For the Hernandez case, in particular, the doctrine of abatement ab initio caused continued pain, both emotional and possibly financial, for the victim’s family. Whatever the initial reasoning behind the concept, it was never intended, as the court noted, as a post-conviction tool for someone such as Hernandez to be able to shirk the ramifications of his actions.
Hernandez was found guilty by a Bristol County jury that heard a spirited and expensive defense across eight weeks of trial. The evidence, which included Hernandez’s own home security footage, was overwhelming, jurors said. Hernandez was tried under Massachusetts’ “joint venture” law that did not require proof that he pulled the trigger. Two of Hernandez’s friends were also at the murder scene that night.
"The Commonwealth requires two things: first, the defendant knowingly participated in the commission of this crime and, second, he did so with the intent required to commit the crime," Judge E. Susan Garsh explained to the jury at the trial.
As such, not only was the possibility Hernandez could win an appeal for a new trial limited, but even if that occurred, getting a not guilty verdict was even more remote.
Hernandez was also charged with two additional murder counts in the 2012 drive-by shootings of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado in Boston. In that trial, Hernandez’s defense was able to argue there was no evidence that Hernandez was the triggerman rather than just a passenger in the car. It was a classic case of “he said, he said.” He was not charged under “joint venture” in that.
After gaining a not guilty verdict in that case — the murders came before Lloyd’s slaying, but the trial came after the Lloyd trial — Hernandez returned to the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center to serve out his life sentence without the possibility of parole. Days later, he hung himself with a bed sheet in his cell. He was 27.
At the time, he may have believed his death would free him from his conviction. For a stretch, it did. Now, he’s a convicted murder again.
“We instruct the trial court to record a notation stating that the defendant's convictions of murder in the first degree, unlawful possession of a firearm, and unlawful possession of ammunition removed the defendant's presumption of innocence as to those charges,” the court ruled.
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