Aaron Hernandez found guilty of first-degree murder

FALL RIVER, Mass. – A jury found Aaron Hernandez guilty of murder in the first degree for the 2013 shooting death of Odin Lloyd, ending forever his life of NFL fame and fortune.

A Bristol County jury of seven women and five men deliberated for 36 hours over seven days before reaching a unanimous verdict on the former New England Patriots star. They said the murder rose to first degree due to Hernandez acting with extreme atrocity or cruelty. The conviction carries a sentence of automatic life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A court officer places handcuffs on Aaron Hernandez after the guilty verdict was read. (REUTERS)
A court officer places handcuffs on Aaron Hernandez after the guilty verdict was read. (REUTERS)

Hernandez, 25, stood stone-faced as the verdict was read, only to collapse into a chair as the guilty charges piled on. Behind him, his fiancée Shayanna Jenkins wept uncontrollably on the shoulder of Teri Hernandez, Aaron's mother. Lloyd's family, who during the trial made a daily pilgrimage to this old mill town 50 miles south of Boston, wept and embraced as the verdict was read.

"Stay strong, stay strong," Hernandez mouthed to his mother and Jenkins. Moments later, he was placed in handcuffs.

Formal sentencing took place about 30 minutes later. Before the sentence was handed down, Ursula Ward, Lloyd's mother, stood before the court.

"The day I laid my son Odin to rest, I felt my heart stop beating for a moment," she said, fighting back tears. "I felt like I wanted to go into that hole with my son, Odin.

"... I forgive the hands of the people who had a hand in my son's murder, even before or after, and I pray and hope that someday everyone out there will forgive them also."

After four of Lloyd's family members spoke of their son, brother, nephew and cousin, the sentence came down: Aaron Hernandez will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As his sentence was read, Hernandez again stood stone-faced, pursing his lips, but otherwise showing no emotion. He was then led out of court and on his way to prison.

Hernandez was taken to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution - Cedar Junction, about a mile from Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots play, before likely being transferred to another facility where he will serve his life sentence.

Lloyd was found shot to death in the early morning hours of June 17, 2013, after Hernandez and two co-conspirators picked up the 27-year-old at his Boston home, and then proceeded to an undeveloped piece of land behind an industrial park in North Attleboro – just a few minutes from Hernandez's home.

"The perfect spot to kill somebody," prosecutor William McCauley said in closing arguments of the dark, out-of-the-way area called Corliss Landing. "No witnesses, other than the killers."

The prosecution overcame the lack of testifying eye witnesses by painstakingly piecing together a mountain of circumstantial, forensic evidence and so-called "electronic witnesses" that was so convincing it forced the defense during closing arguments to change tactics and concede that Hernandez was at the murder site. It just claimed he didn't do it, but rather witnessed a possible PCP-rage killing by either Ernest Wallace or Carlos Ortiz, friends of Hernandez and alleged low-level drug dealers in Connecticut.

The jury explained afterwards they did not buy the PCP theory, nor anything the defense put forth.

"The evidence was compelling," one juror said.

Much of the most powerful evidence against Hernandez was taken from his own home security system. Jurors were able to see Hernandez, Wallace and Ortiz arrive at the house minutes after the murder, cementing the prosecution timeline. Hernandez was soon after seen inside his home carrying what an expert identified as a Glock .45 semiautomatic pistol that prosecutors say was the murder weapon.

Later that same day all three men lounged around the home and the outdoor pool, drinking smoothies made by Hernandez's fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins. The following day video showed Jenkins removing a box from the basement, which she said she did at Hernandez's request. She took it, she said, to a nearby dumpster, although she couldn't recall where.

Under Massachusetts' "Joint Venture" law, the prosecution was not required to prove Hernandez pulled the trigger, although it cited the location of shell casings and various fingerprints to allege that. A guilty verdict could be found by proving Hernandez "intentionally participated in some fashion and that he had or shared the intent" to commit the crime, Bristol County Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh instructed the jury.

In the end, the prosecution's evidence was strong enough to overcome the lack of a murder weapon and a clear motive of why Hernandez would kill what appeared to be a friend. Lloyd, a landscaper from Boston, was dating Shaneah Jenkins, the younger sister of Hernandez's fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins.

The two sisters occasionally spent days at the trial seated on opposite sides of the tense courtroom. On the stand, Shayanna described their once close relationship as "estranged."

The trial took 41 days and featured 135 witnesses stretched over parts of 10 weeks. It was repeatedly delayed by harsh winter weather. It started days before the local Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl and included testimony from team owner Robert Kraft, whose testimony showed that Hernandez originally lied to him about his whereabouts at the time of the murder. Kraft testified that Hernandez "hoped that the time of the murder came out because I believe he said he was in a club." Hernandez was not at a club that night.

The 12 jurors indicated they did not know who Kraft was, but that his testimony was "compelling," with one juror noting that two years later he still doesn't know exactly what time Lloyd was murdered. If he still doesn't know now after 41 days of testimony, the juror wondered, how could Hernandez have known then?

Hernandez, originally from Bristol, Conn., was a decorated player at the University of Florida before being drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft. He played three seasons as a tight end, serving as one of quarterback Tom Brady's preferred targets and catching a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLVI.

In 2012, the Patriots rewarded him with a $40 million contract, only a portion of which he eventually earned before being arrested for this murder.

Ursula Ward, mother of the victim, reacts to the guilty verdict of Aaron Hernandez. (REUTERS)
Ursula Ward, mother of the victim, reacts to the guilty verdict of Aaron Hernandez. (REUTERS)

This stands as one of the most spectacular falls of an American sports star and the shocking uncovering of what appears to be a double life of football hero/would-be street gangster.

Hernandez is also set to stand trial on double-murder charges in Suffolk County, Mass., for allegedly being the gunman in a drive-by shooting after an incident at a Boston nightclub in the summer of 2012. He wasn't arrested for that crime until after the Lloyd murder caused police to reexamine an otherwise cold case.

Hernandez is also accused in a civil suit of shooting his friend Bradley Alexander in the face after a night out at a South Florida strip club in February of 2013. Alexander is expected to be the star witness in the double-homicide case.

Judge Garsh prohibited the prosecution from mentioning any of the above incidents in this case, deeming the "prior bad acts" as unduly prejudicial to Hernandez. That allowed the defense to focus on the lack of motive and acting incredulous that a man such as Hernandez, who had so much to lose, would engage in such reckless behavior.

It didn't matter.

The jurors saw through the high-priced defense team and convicted Hernandez anyway. He was also convicted of gun and weapons charges. He received 2½ years for that conviction.

As Ursula Ward spoke in front of the courthouse, Hernandez was driven away in a white paddy wagon, taking a ride he had many times before – about 40 miles north up I-495. About a mile from Gillette Stadium, the van took a right, toward MCI Cedar Junction, where Hernandez will begin the rest of his life in jail.