Aaron Hernandez: A victim of circumstance or circumstantial evidence?
Despite a missing murder weapon, prosecutors have built a strong case against the former NFL star.
The February 1, 2015, broadcast of Super Bowl XLIX was the most-watched event in American television history. The matchup between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks became an instant classic after Malcolm Butler intercepted a goal-line pass in the game’s final seconds to push the Patriots to victory. Nearly 121 million viewers were tuned in during the game’s final crucial minutes. Aaron Hernandez was not one of them: the former star tight end spent Super Bowl Sunday in solitary confinement in a Massachusetts jail.
Hernandez is currently on trial for the June 17, 2013, shooting death of his friend, semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd. Investigators believe that the murder was partly motivated by an argument that occurred earlier that weekend. That Friday, the men were partying together at a popular Boston club when Lloyd’s cousin allegedly made some disrespectful remarks about Hernandez. He became enraged, and the friends exchanged heated words.
Hernandez’s hothead reputation was well documented, but his anger was typically short-lived. When he texted Lloyd to hang out that Sunday evening, Lloyd agreed. The next morning, a jogger found Lloyd’s body in an industrial park in North Attleboro, the Massachusetts suburb where Hernandez lived. He had been shot six times, execution-style.
During early stages of the investigation, it appeared that the Commonwealth would face an uphill battle in prosecuting the crime.
Police quickly turned their attention to Hernandez after finding a key to his rented Chevrolet Suburban in the victim’s pocket. On June 26, 2013, they arrested the former NFL star at his mansion. Ninety minutes later, the Patriots dismissed him from the team.
During early stages of the investigation, it appeared that the Commonwealth would face an uphill battle in prosecuting the crime. Police have never located the murder weapon, believed to be a .45-caliber Glock handgun. Additionally, they have struggled to find strong, credible witnesses who are willing to testify against Hernandez.
Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, two of Hernandez’s associates, also face first-degree murder charges in Lloyd’s death. Investigators say that the men accompanied Hernandez to the murder site and later helped dispose of important evidence. Wallace has staunchly refused to cooperate with law enforcement, but Ortiz initially seemed prepared to assist. However, neither defendant has proven particularly helpful to the prosecution thus far.
Ortiz pointed officers to the friends’ “flophouse,” a secret apartment near the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium that the group used mostly for partying. Hernandez allowed Ortiz and Wallace to live at the apartment, and investigators believe that important evidence may have been hidden or destroyed there. Unfortunately, police searched the apartment before they had probable cause to do so. As a result, Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh excluded evidence obtained in the search, including multiple rounds of .45-caliber ammunition.
Early in the investigation, Ortiz also told police that he and Wallace were present during the shooting. He said that although he stayed in the car and did not personally witness it, Wallace later told him that Hernandez had committed the murder. However, even if his account is entirely accurate, Ortiz is far from a solid potential witness. Both his long addiction to PCP, also known as “angel dust,” and his interest in receiving a plea bargain in his own trial weigh heavily against Ortiz’s credibility.
Since opening arguments, Hernandez’s attorneys have attempted to paint him as a victim of circumstance and his own celebrity.
The trial began on January 29, 2015, in Bristol County Superior Court. Since opening arguments, Hernandez’s attorneys have attempted to paint him as a victim of circumstance and his own celebrity. They contend that once police learned of his friendship with the victim, “he never had a chance.”
Prosecutors vehemently disagree with this portrayal of Hernandez. They say that he is not the person who his supporters claim him to be: an immature, but kindhearted young man who fell in with a bad crowd. Rather, they characterize Hernandez as a heartless thug driven dangerously paranoid by a heavy drug habit: a cold and calculated killer.
Early evidentiary rulings seemed to tip the already lopsided scales further in the defense’s favor. Several text messages that Lloyd sent to his sister were excluded as hearsay. Judge Garsh also excluded any mention of two collateral trials in which Hernandez is currently a defendant.
Minutes before he was killed, Lloyd texted his sister, “U saw who I was with… NFL… Just so U know.” Industrial park workers reported hearing shots fired soon thereafter. Arguing for admission, the prosecution characterized the messages as a “dying declaration,” an exception to the rule against hearsay that applies when the declarant is unavailable. But because Lloyd’s messages do not, on their face, evince a belief of imminent death, Judge Garsh excluded them from evidence.
In addition to the current trial, Hernandez also faces criminal and civil charges arising from two other shootings. Although the events are seemingly unrelated, some of the details are eerily similar to the Lloyd shooting.
As in the instant case, Boston police believe that the other criminal case, a 2012 double homicide, started as a bar dispute. According to investigators, the victims quarreled with Hernandez at a club earlier in the night of the murder. After the men spilled a drink on him and refused to apologize, he allegedly followed them from the club and opened fire on their car while it was at a stoplight.
Hernandez also faces a civil lawsuit stemming from a 2013 shooting in Florida. Alexander Bradley, a former friend, claims that Hernandez shot him in the face and left him to die following a trivial disagreement at a Miami strip club. At the time, he told police that he did not know who shot him. No charges were filed, but the civil complaint alleges more than $100,000 in damages. Bradley lost his right eye as a result of the shooting.
However, if the defendant references the excluded evidence at trial, he or she is said to “open the door” to the prosecution’s questions on the matter.
Judge Garsh ruled pretrial to exclude evidence of both shootings. Such a ruling is typical in cases involving collateral trials and is designed to protect a criminal defendant from unfair prejudice in the instant case. However, if the defendant references the excluded evidence at trial, he or she is said to “open the door” to the prosecution’s questions on the matter.
In an interesting twist at trial, Hernandez’s attorneys came dangerously close to doing just that. Emphasizing the defendant’s lack of motive to kill Lloyd, the defense repeatedly asserted that Hernandez would never shoot a friend. By doing so, prosecutors argued, the defendant inadvertently opened the door to Bradley’s testimony to the contrary. Judge Garsh disagreed and denied the prosecution’s renewed motion to admit. She distinguished the cases, finding that there was a clear motive for the Florida shooting because it occurred immediately after Hernandez felt disrespected.
Judge Garsh’s renewed ruling to exclude Bradley’s testimony is not altogether surprising. Given that no criminal charges were filed, these allegations have little probative value to the instant case, but they could be highly prejudicial. Nonetheless, defense attorneys must be very cautious when making arguments involving previously excluded evidence.
Unlike her ruling as to evidence of the Bradley shooting, Judge Garsh relaxed her pre-trial stance on Lloyd’s text messages. At trial, she allowed prosecutors to question Lloyd’s sister about the messages’ existence, though not about their content.
The messages constitute circumstantial evidence that the Commonwealth will use to support its theory of the case. Lloyd’s fingerprints were found in Hernandez’s rented Nissan Altima, and jurors were shown video footage of the victim entering the car just before he was killed. Prosecutors presented tracking data to show that Lloyd’s cell phone pinged several towers along the route from his house to the industrial park while he was texting his sister. Additionally, a witness from the state police crime lab testified that DNA matching both Hernandez and Lloyd was present on a marijuana blunt found at the murder site.
Taken together, this evidence appears to establish that the men were together close to the time of the murder. Circumstantial evidence can be very powerful. Despite defense attorneys’ disdain for it, the law affords circumstantial evidence the same weight as direct.
Whether the evidence presented is sufficient to convict Hernandez, only time will tell. Campbell University School of Law Professor Zachary Bolitho, a former federal prosecutor, cautioned against making assumptions as to what the jury might do. “You never know what will happen in a high profile case, or any case,” he said. “Twelve people can do some crazy things.”