Recently, I read several headlines that stated, “Aaron Hernandez Is Innocent.” I immediately thought of the impact of those words. First, I thought how it might affect the readers. Then, my thoughts shifted to how it may impact the families of the victims. After a day of contemplation, I decided that I needed to write this article.
First, for the few not familiar with Aaron Hernandez’s criminal cases, let me share the facts. Hernandez, who was a productive tight end with the New England Patriots, signed a $40 million dollar contract in August of 2012. After he was arrested on June 28, 2013, and charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd, that lucrative agreement went bye-bye. On April 15, 2015, a jury convicted Hernandez of first-degree murder as well as five weapons charges. He received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. Additionally, Hernandez went to trial for the 2012 double murder of Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu. He was acquitted by a jury on April 14, 2017. Five days after his acquittal, Hernandez was found dead in his jail cell after apparently hanging himself with a bed sheet.
This week, a Superior Court Judge agreed to vacate Hernandez’s conviction for the 2013 murder of Lloyd. The judge based her ruling on a rarely used common law doctrine known as “abatement ab initio,” which requires the dismissal of a conviction when a defendant dies prior to exhausting all of his appeals. The doctrine, which was used by judges in several high-profile cases, was relied upon by the judge who set aside the fraud convictions of Enron’s Ken Lay. Lay died of a heart attack prior to his sentencing.
So is Hernandez innocent? Definitely…without a doubt…maybe. What the heck does that mean? Well, the answer depends upon whether one is determining whether he is legally innocent or factually innocent. Let’s start with legally.
Yes, he is legally innocent. Every defendant accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent under the law. That presumption of innocence never changes until and unless the charges are proven beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt. I hear you yelling right now, “He was proven guilty!!! The jury found that he murdered Odin Lloyd beyond a reasonable doubt!!!” That’s true, however, under common law, criminal cases haven’t reached final judgment until all direct appeals have been exhausted. An appellate court could have overturnned the conviction. If, for example, an appellate court finds that a jury made a mistake or that inadmissible evidence led to the conviction, then it would be unfair to let a conviction stand.
While Hernandez might be legally innocent, it’s entirely different to say that he is factually innocent. Just because a person’s conviction was vacated for some reason doesn’t mean that the person didn’t commit the crime(s). First, in Hernandez’s case, no one knows whether the appellate court would have reversed the jury’s finding of guilt. Additionally, even if they ever did, they wouldn’t necessarily have reversed the conviction based upon him being innocent. Cases are often reversed based upon what many in the public call “technicalities.” What that actually means is that the conviction gets reversed based upon some part of the trial being deemed unfair. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the appellate court finds that the person is innocent. Rather, cases are often reversed because the trial process wasn’t deemed fair for some reason. For example, if it was found out after conviction that one of the jurors failed to disclose that he/she had been convicted of a crime years previously, that could serve as grounds for a reversal. Also, perhaps one of the jurors violates the court’s instructions by doing some research about the case, that could also lead to a reversal. The bottom line is that it’s important to understand that legal innocence and factual innocence are two very different things.
Furthermore, concerning his second murder case, it’s important to point out that just because a jury finds someone “not guilty” doesn’t mean that the defendant is factually innocent. I know that first-hand, having tried over 125 jury trials in my 25 year career. I’m certain that I won a number of trials for clients because the prosecutor’s case had reasonable doubts and not necessarily because my clients were factually innocent. No one will ever convince me that OJ Simpson and/or Casey Anthony are factually innocent solely because a jury didn’t convict. While a “not guilty” verdict can mean that the accused is factually innocent, it can also mean that the person is guilty of the crime, however, the prosecution simply couldn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
While Hernandez’s conviction was reversed, it doesn’t mean that he is “innocent” of either of his two cases. Legally, he is, based upon the “abatement ab initio doctrine” as applied to his first case, and by virtue of the fact that he was acquitted in his second case. Factually innocent? Well, that may be a different story.