In a stunning scene that played out in Fall River Superior Court today, a jury convicted former Patriots player Aaron Hernandez of first-degree murder.
Hernandez was also found guilty of unlawful possession of a gun and ammunition. Audible gasps were heard in the courtroom as the verdict was read and Hernandez’s fiance, who testified at the trial, and his mother held each other and sobbed. Hernandez showed little reaction to the verdict. Before the judge imposed the sentence, members of the victim’s family gave powerful impact statements concerning how the crime had changed their lives as Hernandez, handcuffed and surrounded by his lawyers, looked on. In Massachusetts, defendants who are convicted of first-degree murder receive automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole, and the judge imposed that sentence on Hernandez. He was quickly removed from the courtroom and placed in a sheriff’s van which transported him to MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole to begin serving his sentence. Television helicopters followed and filmed Hernandez as he stepped from the van into the prison while wearing a prisoner’s jumpsuit.
The charges resulted from an altercation between Hernandez and a man named Odin Lloyd, who was dating Hernandez’s fiance’s sister. Hernandez supposedly had concerns that Lloyd knew too much about Hernandez’s unrelated criminal activity. Therefore, Hernandez and two friends allegedly picked Lloyd up at his home, drove him to an industrial park near Hernandez’s mansion, and shot him six times, leaving him to die. Hernandez’s two friends have also been charged with murder and are awaiting trial.
What was interesting about the trial was the amount of information that the judge prevented the jury from considering. For example, Hernandez allegedly shot another friend in the face before the murder, but that friend was not allowed to talk about the incident when he testified. Hernandez has also been charged with double murder in Boston related to a shooting that pre-dated Lloyd’s death, but the prosecutor was not permitted to introduce evidence about that case. As a result, the Commonwealth was unable to present a strong motive to the Fall River jury and some legal analysts thought Hernandez might be acquitted. While the Commonwealth had established that Hernandez was present at the scene of the murder (and the defense attorney conceded in his closing argument that Hernandez was there), presence alone is not sufficient to prove guilt.
In the end, the jury concluded that Hernandez had either fired the fatal shots or, under a joint venture theory, had assisted one of his friends in doing so. The jury also found that the crime was committed with extreme atrocity or cruelty, which provided the basis for the conviction of murder in the first degree.
The case will now move into the appellate phase. Under Massachusetts law, all first-degree murder convictions are appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court. The appellate process typically takes a couple of years, and Hernandez will likely be tried on the Boston murders before the appeal in the Fall River case is finished. Hernandez has pleaded not guilty in the Boston case. As Hernandez was being transported to prison today, he passed nearby Gillette Stadium where he once played in front of adoring fans for millions of dollars. It’s hard to imagine what could cause someone to give up so much.