Facing a mountain of circumstantial evidence in the first-degree murder trial of former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, the defense team took a gamble during its closing argument. They claimed Hernandez witnessed his PCP-addled associates Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz fatally shoot 27-year-old Odin Lloyd at a North Attleborough, Massachusetts, industrial park on June 17, 2013.
The move backfired and stunned members of the jury that ultimately convicted Hernandez on Wednesday on first-degree murder and gun charges. Worse, the admission strengthened the prosecution’s circumstantial case that otherwise lacked a murder weapon, a cooperative eyewitness or a solid motive. The gamble, along with the defense’s last-minute presentation of an alternative narrative for Lloyd’s murder, undid weeks of effective tactics from Hernandez’ all-star defense team, legal experts said.
“They put an end to any question about it, any doubt the jury could have raised in the deliberation room, by just coming straight out in the closing arguments and saying he was there,” said Adam Thompson, a criminal defense attorney in New York. “Biggest blunder. Never should have been said.”
Jurors in the Hernandez case heard from more than 100 witnesses and were presented countless pieces of evidence during the trial, which stretched over a 10-week period. The prosecution argued Hernandez conspired with Wallace and Ortiz to drive Lloyd to the industrial park and kill him with a handgun. Authorities never presented a clear motive for Hernandez’s actions, other than to suggest he was angry at Lloyd for perceived slights that occurred in the weeks before the murder took place. Moreover, police never found the .45-caliber Glock handgun used in the killing.
What The Video Showed
Instead, the prosecution relied on compelling circumstantial evidence to tie Hernandez to the murder. Surveillance video footage showed Hernandez driving the rented car used to transport Lloyd from his home in the Dorchester section of Boston to the North Attleborough industrial park. Cell phone records allowed authorities to posthumously track Lloyd’s cell phone from Boston to North Attleborough.
Surveillance footage taken from Hernandez’s North Attleborough home showed the former Patriots tight end holding what appeared to be a gun both before and immediately after the murder. Authorities also recovered Hernandez’s chewing gum and a shell casing in the rental car that matched casings taken from the crime scene, as well as a marijuana joint with Hernandez’s DNA where Lloyd died, the Associated Press reported.
Before and during the trial, the defense managed to poke several holes in the prosecution’s case. Judge Susan Garsh sided with the defense in a pre-trial ruling that excluded mention of Hernandez, Ortiz and Wallace’s links to the 2012 murders of two men in Boston, which prosecutors initially presented as a reason Hernandez may have wanted to silence Lloyd. Garsh also declared inadmissible a series of texts Lloyd sent to his sister shortly before his death, in which he warned her that he was with “NFL,” on grounds that their interpretation was speculative.
Hernandez’s team also raised doubt about whether the object Hernandez held in surveillance footage was actually a gun. They repeatedly objected to elements of the prosecution’s case, with the judge sustaining many of those objections. This resulted in a prosecution argument that came across as disjointed and muddled.
“I really thought there would be a hung jury. I didn’t think they would get a conviction on first-degree murder. When it’s circumstantial, it’s very hard to do that,” Thompson said.
Without concrete evidence to definitively place Hernandez at the scene, it was difficult for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he killed Lloyd. But the defense’s admission that Hernandez was present helped tie together the circumstantial evidence, jurors said at a news conference after delivering the verdict. “We were all shocked,” one juror said regarding the defense’s claim, the Boston Globe reported.
But Hernandez’s defense team’s true misstep was its decision to present its alternative theory about Lloyd’s murder at the end, rather than the start of the trial, argued Harry Manion, a trial attorney and legal analyst based in Boston. Prior to that, the defense had waged an effective battle.
The forensic evidence and surveillance records that tied Hernandez to the crime scene was so strong that the jury would have decided on its own that he was present, regardless of whether or not the defense admitted it, Manion said. Rather than say at the end of the trial that Hernandez merely witnessed the crime, the defense should have raised its theory about Wallace and Ortiz’s PCP-fueled actions from the outset in order to gain credibility with the jury -- especially when it became clear that Wallace and Ortiz would be tried separately for Lloyd’s murder.
“Once the two co-defendants were severed out and it was clear they were not going to [testify against Hernandez], now you have a chance to blame them. That’s defense 101. If you’re going to blame them, blame them. Don’t blame them at the end, at the last part of your hour-and-a-half-long closing argument,” Manion said.
Moreover, the defense’s portrayal of Hernandez as a stunned onlooker didn’t match up with the evidence. Hernandez did not contact authorities to report Lloyd’s murder, nor did he act like a scared witness to a brutal killing.
“He certainly didn’t look like he was outraged and shocked and surprised. He looked like he was an active part of what was happening, from the minute he walked in with the gun, to going downstairs as we see on the video, to hanging around at the pool the next day with Wallace,” Manion said. “They all look like active participants.”
Hernandez will now pin his hopes on the improbable notion that his lawyers will win an appeal to overturn his sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. If not, the man who once signed a $40 million NFL contract will spend the rest of his life at the maximum-security MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole, Massachusetts, less than two miles away from the Patriots’ home stadium in Foxborough.
"I wouldn't give him more than a 15 percent chance on appeal," Manion said.