The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today refused to overrule an important evidentiary ruling made by the trial judge overseeing the murder trial of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. The full opinion can be read here.
Hernandez has been indicted for murder and gun charges following the shooting death of his former friend Odin Lloyd in 2013. The trial has been ongoing in Fall River Superior Court since January. As with any trial, both parties asked the judge to make rulings on what evidence will be admissible and seen by the jury. The Commonwealth wanted to call Robert Paradis to testify about conversations he had with the defendant prior to Lloyd’s murder. At a pretrial hearing, Paradis said he would testify that he was with Hernandez in California about a month and a half before Lloyd was killed. At some point, Paradis was a passenger in a car being driven by Hernandez when Hernandez said he had “heat” or “fire” under his seat. Paradis thought Hernandez was talking about a gun. Paradis also heard Hernandez say he had a .45, which is the type of gun that was used to kill Lloyd (the murder weapon has never been recovered).
When Hernandez was leaving California and on his way to the airport, he called Paradis and asked him to look in a dresser or nightstand in the bedroom where they had been staying to see if “it” was there. Paradis found an object wrapped in a t-shirt and believed the object was a gun. He told Hernandez that “it” was still there. The trial judge ruled that Paradis would not be permitted to tell this story to the jury, and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the trial judge’s ruling.
Before ruling on the merits, the SJC took the Commonwealth to task for filing the appeal in the first place. The Commonwealth appealed under the Supreme Judicial Court’s “general superintendence” power to correct lower courts’ errors of law. However, as the Court pointed out, the general superintendence power is “extraordinary” and reserved for truly extraordinary situations. In this case, the Court said the Commonwealth was attempting to simply second guess the “routine evidentiary rulings” of the trial judge. The SJC correctly pointed out that if extraordinary review was available in this type of situation, every disgruntled prosecutor in every criminal courtroom in the state could run to the SJC and appeal if the trial judge was not issuing evidentiary rulings in the Commonwealth’s favor.
After explaining, at some length, why the Commonwealth was not entitled to have its appeal heard at all, the SJC then ruled that the trial judge did not commit error in the first place. The judge found that there was no evidence to conclude that the gun found in California was the weapon used to murder Lloyd. In fact, there was no evidence that the gun was ever delivered to Massachusetts at any time prior to the killing. Therefore, the jury will not hear about the presence of the gun in California or about Hernandez’s alleged knowledge of it.
The Commonwealth is still presenting its case-in-chief. If Hernandez is convicted of first-degree murder, he will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Regardless of what happens in this case, Hernandez is also facing trial for a double murder that occurred in Boston in 2012. He has denied guilt in both cases.