Aaron Hernandez Seeks to Exclude “Prior Bad Acts” at Upcoming Trial

Multiple media sources reported on Friday that Aaron Hernandez has filed a motion to prevent the Commonwealth from introducing evidence of his “prior bad acts” at his upcoming murder trial.  According to the Boston Herald, the defense team has identified and objected to eight pieces of evidence the prosecution wants to share with the jury. 

Hernandez is under indictment for murder and firearms charges related to his alleged role in the murder of one-time friend Odin Lloyd in a North Attleboro industrial park.  The Commonwealth wants to present evidence to the jury that Hernandez was previously involved in various criminal schemes and other nefarious conduct that is unrelated to Lloyd’s murder.  The defense has filed a motion asking the trial judge to prohibit the prosecution from offering these prior bad acts.  The Herald reported that Hernandez is specifically objecting to evidence regarding another (unrelated) double murder with which Hernandez has been charged; a shooting in Florida that allegedly involved Hernandez, the purchase and ownership of guns and ammunition by Hernandez; and a fight at a Providence nightclub that allegedly involved Hernandez. Hernandez also objects to the introduction of a photograph, which was obtained and published by TMZ, depicting him holding a firearm.

The general rule in Massachusetts is that evidence related to a defendant’s character or reputation is inadmissible in court.  Our judicial system does not convict a defendant of crimes because the prosecutor can show that he has a propensity to engage in criminal behavior.  The danger of propensity evidence is that a jury will decide to convict a defendant based on his lousy character instead of the facts of the alleged crime with which he has been charged.

While general character evidence is inadmissible, specific prior bad acts committed by the defendant may be introduced at trial for other purposes.  For example, if a prior bad act establishes that a defendant has a motive to hurt the alleged victim, it may be admissible.  Prosecutors often argue that prior bad acts are admissible not as propensity evidence, but to establish a “pattern of conduct.”  For example, if a bank robbery defendant has previously robbed multiple banks using the same mask, the same note, and the same weapon, the Commonwealth could introduce evidence of the prior bank robberies to prove the defendant’s identity and his pattern of robbing banks in an identical fashion.  In deciding whether to allow the evidence to be presented to the jury, trial judges consider whether its probative value outweighs the unfair prejudice to the defendant.

Prior bad act evidence can be devastating to a defendant’s case.  Even if a judge instructs the jury that the evidence is not to be used to conclude that the defendant has a bad character, a jury is going to have a hard time not considering the evidence for that very purpose.  And while prosecutors always insist that they are not offering evidence for propensity purposes, it’s a bogus argument.  Prosecutors want the jury to know every single bad thing the defendant has ever done in his life in the hope that the jury will convict him on his past bad behavior.

In the Hernandez case, it will be interesting to see how many of the prior bad acts the judge allows into evidence.  The Commonwealth will need to make a compelling argument that the similarities in the Lloyd murder case and the unrelated double murder case are extraordinarily strong, because the potential of Hernandez being unfairly prejudiced by such evidence is huge.  This case illustrates the importance of aggressively litigating pretrial motions regarding the admissibility of evidence, as the outcome of these motions will dramatically affect the parties’ presentations to the jury.  Hernandez’s trial is scheduled to begin January 5, 2015, in Fall River Superior Court.