The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reinstated the murder conviction of Aaron Hernandez, ruling that his death while his case was being appealed did not justify vacating the guilty finding. The decision can be read at Commonwealth v. Hernandez.
The turbulent life of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez ended when he committed suicide at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center on April 19, 2017. His football career ended when he was arrested and charged with murdering Odin Lloyd in June of 2013. A Fall River Superior Court jury found Hernandez guilty of first-degree murder in April of 2015 and the judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole. After filing a notice of appeal and beginning to serve his sentence, Hernandez went on trial for an unrelated double murder in Suffolk Superior Court. A jury found him not guilty on April 14, 2017, and five days later he hanged himself with his bed sheets in his cell.
Hernandez’s appellate attorneys were still in the process of compiling the trial record to appeal his Fall River murder case. Because he died before the Supreme Judicial Court had the opportunity to consider his appeal, his attorneys filed a motion to vacate his conviction and dismiss the indictment pursuant to the legal doctrine of abatement ab initio, which states that a conviction cannot stand if the direct appeal is pending. This rule leaves the defendant as if he was never indicted in the first place. The trial judge, relying on precedent from the Supreme Judicial Court, allowed the defendant’s motion, vacated the conviction, and dismissed the indictment. The Commonwealth appealed and asked the SJC to rule the practice of abatement ab initio should no longer be enforced. Today, the SJC agreed with the Commonwealth’s argument and reinstated Hernandez’s murder conviction.
The Court began its analysis by noting that although the doctrine has been applied for many years, few courts have articulated the rationale behind it. Although Massachusetts courts have generally dismissed cases where defendants have died while waiting to litigate their appeals, the SJC has never offered a justification for the practice. The federal system still follows abatement ad initio, but a majority of the states do not. An argument in favor of the doctrine involves the finality principle – in the criminal system, a trial and an appeal are essential parts of the process. If an appeal is pending when the defendant dies, he was deprived the opportunity to benefit from part of the process. However, the SJC pointed out that a criminal defendant does not enjoy a constitutional right of appeal – in Massachusetts, he is afforded an appeal by statute. A second argument in favor of the doctrine involves the punishment principle – the criminal justice system is in place primarily to punish convicted defendants, and when a defendant dies, he can no longer be punished. The counterargument is that crime victims have an interest in seeing convictions preserved, even if the defendant has died.
Ultimately, the SJC was unable to find a “reasoned analysis” for maintaining the abatement ab initio doctrine. Instead of vacating the conviction and dismissing the indictment, Massachusetts will follow a new protocol. If a defendant is convicted at trial and dies while his appeal is pending, the appeal will be dismissed. The trial court docket will reflect that the defendant’s conviction removed the presumption of innocence but the conviction was neither affirmed nor reversed because the defendant died while the appeal was pending. As a result, Aaron Hernandez’s murder conviction will stand.