Aaron Hernandez trial: Defense hinges on PCP-induced 'psychosis'

Aaron Hernandez's attorneys huddle during the murder trial. (AP)
Aaron Hernandez's attorneys huddle during the murder trial. (AP)

FALL RIVER, Mass. – James Sultan stood behind a defense table here inside Courtroom 7 in Bristol County Superior Court on Monday afternoon and paused dramatically.

"At this time, your honor and members of the jury, the defendant, Mr. Hernandez, rests," Sultan said.

The murder trial of former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez that began Super Bowl week in January is finally grinding to a close, after the defense called just three witnesses across just a few hours Monday – in contrast to 131 prosecution witnesses stretched over 39 days of testimony. That's where the defense put in most of its work, in cross-examination.

The case now moves to dueling closing arguments on Tuesday before a jury of 12 randomly selected from 10 women and five men (three will wind up as alternates) begin deliberations on whether Hernandez was responsible for killing Odin Lloyd on June 17, 2013, in an undeveloped industrial area near Hernandez's North Attleboro, Mass., home.

Essentially, Hernandez's fate will rest on whether co-council Michael Fee can provide a powerful enough closing argument to convince the jury that the Commonwealth did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The main assertion of the defense is that there is nothing to defend, hence the limited defense, because Hernandez is innocent and the state didn't meet the burden of proving otherwise.

The brief defense offerings here Monday yielded little and likely shouldn't have included the first witness, Dr. David Greenblatt, a "PCP expert" who wound up aiding the prosecution more than Hernandez.

Greenblatt was brought in to bolster the defense theory that PCP can cause violent psychosis. Previous testimony suggested that co-conspirators Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz, who were with Hernandez and Lloyd at the time of the murder, might have smoked marijuana laced with PCP in the days before the murder. Thus one or both of them may have unpredictably acted out and killed Lloyd.

The idea is that Hernandez was not a willing or knowing participant in the crime, which is all that is needed to convict him under Massachusetts' joint venture law. He also may have been fearful of his own life due to the PCP rage, which would explain why he allowed them to stay at his house that night and much of the next day.

It didn't work out very well though.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Patrick Bomberg got Greenblatt to acknowledge he had no idea if Wallace and/or Ortiz were on PCP and without a toxicology report such a determination was impossible. Even if they were, Greenblatt testified, it would be impossible to know if they had suffered a fit of psychosis and, further, if that hypothetical psychosis led to a violent act.

"The presence of PCP doesn't necessarily lead to violence?" Bomberg asked.

"That's correct," Greenblatt said.

Bomberg showed lengthy home surveillance video of Wallace and Ortiz from that night where they casually hang around Hernandez's rental car in the driveway and later in his living room. They look perfectly normal.

In one sequence, when the three pull up to the house at 3:25 a.m., just moments after Lloyd was allegedly murdered nearby, Wallace and Ortiz wait by the garage door as Hernandez turns his back and reaches back into the car. It constitutes odd and very trusting behavior if Hernandez had just witnessed one of these men flip out in a drug rage and randomly shoot Lloyd six times.

"Doctor, would you turn your back on someone who just had an episode of PCP-induced violent psychosis?" Bomberg asked.

Judge E. Susan Garsh immediately sustained a defense objection and had the question officially struck from the record. The moment was powerful nonetheless.

Then there was Bomberg getting Greenblatt to testify that while alcohol can lead to violent acts, just smoking marijuana does not.

"I don't know any evidence that marijuana causes violent behavior," Greenblatt said.

Hernandez's fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, testified that Hernandez was drunk that night, a statement backed up by a lengthy drink tab run up earlier at a Providence restaurant.

There has been no evidence, however, presented that either Wallace or Ortiz had been drinking.

That will almost assuredly be pointed out Tuesday during closing arguments. Garsh has granted each side 90 minutes to argue their case, up from the standard half hour in Massachusetts.

The prosecution will lean on mountains of evidence and testimony provided to make a clear argument that shows Hernandez's presence at the murder scene. It will show video of him carrying what an expert identified as a Glock semiautomatic pistol just after the murder and another video of Jenkins removing a large box the next day that she said she took to a mystery dumpster at the request of Hernandez despite not knowing the contents.

It will also highlight Hernandez's position as the ringleader of the group, including casually hanging around the next day at his pool with Wallace and Ortiz and later providing them a rental car to drive to Connecticut.

Aaron Hernandez talks with his attorney, Charles Rankin. (AP)
Aaron Hernandez talks with his attorney, Charles Rankin. (AP)

The following night, while safely inside a local police station where he was being questioned, Hernandez instructed his fiancée, with their eight-month-old daughter in tow, to meet Wallace and Ortiz in the middle of the night at a location off an interstate. There she was to provide them with money; she handed over $500.

That, once again, is a curious request to make if he feared one or both of the men were capable of a PCP-fueled murderous rage. Who sends his fiancée and child, flush with cash, to meet those kinds of people? The prosecution will no doubt use this to show Hernandez had complete comfort and trust in Wallace and Ortiz, aiding their fleeing from the region.

The defense will focus on lack of motive, arguing that it would make no sense for a man such as Hernandez, with growing fame, family and fortune, courtesy of a $40 million NFL contract, would just randomly kill his friend Lloyd. Hernandez and Lloyd shared an enthusiasm for smoking marijuana and hung out often since Lloyd began dating Shayanna Jenkins' younger sister.

The lack of motive, more than even the lack of a discovered murder weapon, is the biggest hole in the prosecution's case. Fee built his opening argument on that thought: "Why would Aaron kill his friend Odin?"

That's what everyone wonders when it comes to Hernandez. It is particularly challenging here because the Commonwealth couldn't admit evidence of Hernandez's alleged participation in other shootings and alleged murders. He faces charges for a 2012 double homicide in Boston, the trial of which should begin later this year.

The jury, however, heard nothing about that. They did hear plenty, though, over this lengthy trial that has stretched across 11 weeks, often delayed due to uncharacteristically heavy snow this winter.

"At this time you have heard and seen all the evidence you will see in this case," Garsh instructed the jury Monday afternoon, reminding them to not begin deliberating until after closing arguments and her instructions on the law that will come later Tuesday.

"Then the case will be yours," Garsh said.

As she said that, Aaron Hernandez, looking sharp and alert despite being a long way from the NFL, stood and peered at the jury.

None of them, at that moment, were looking back.