We’d seen this bad TV drama before. A star athlete charged with murder. Minimally trained (and badly paid) prosecutors laboring diligently, but with only inadequate resources and a questionable police investigation to work with. Crafty and experienced defense lawyers representing the wealthy sports star and overmatching the state in every way. With the high burdens of proof in criminal prosecutions in our system, there would seem to be no chance of a conviction. “If [the gloves] don’t fit, you must acquit”? Another heinous crime left unpunished.
The names certainly had changed. Not O.J. Simpson this time, but Aaron Hernandez, star tight end of the New England Patriots. Charged not in the murder of his former wife, but close enough. The victim was one Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancée. Hernandez certainly had the wherewithal to choose counsel matching that of his infamous predecessor-in-the-dock. Shortly before the crime, Hernandez had signed a mammoth contract with the Patriots guaranteeing him at least $16 million. The Patriots cut him after he was accused, in this murder and two others. But the money was his, and he could afford to pay the piper in the hopes of walking away from the indictments at least a free man, and still a celebrity, if no longer a star football player. So he assembled an elite legal team and set out on the well-worn path of overwhelming the local public servants of a suburb north of Boston.
So it had all the trappings of another courtroom disaster for the state. The early readings seemed to bear out these fears. Hernandez’s legal team won several early procedural motions. And in a seeming reprise of events at the O.J. Simpson trial, it quickly became apparent that the state had no murder weapon, a deficit often fatal in murder trials. O.J., you may remember, was suspected of disposing of this critical evidence in the woods around O’Hare Airport, which a troop of deputies combed through to no avail, never being able to find anything. So too, here, Hernandez’s fiancée was thought to have disposed of a sealed container of items given to her by Hernandez after the event, placing it in a dumpster she could no longer identify. And to complicate matters further, she wasn’t talking anyway, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights and suffering a contempt citation for refusing to appear before the grand jury. Hernandez’s alleged accomplices, now codefendants, were also standing mute.
As the trial began, however, it became apparent there were no Keystone Cops around this time, despite the defense’s claims to the contrary. And this was not your grandfather’s prosecution unit either. Police and prosecutors had assembled some impressive evidence and, more important, wove it into a carefully detailed, if prolix, narrative. The case took months to put on, but methodically the prosecution detailed each step in a horrific tale whereby Hernandez met Lloyd in a night club, took him on a fateful drive to an industrial park, and shot him in the presence of the others, all for some largely unarticulated peccadillo of Lloyd’s. He seemed just to have rubbed the superstar the wrong way. A jogger later found Lloyd’s bullet-ridden body.
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