Since the trial of Aaron Hernandez for the murder of Odin Lloyd began in January, it has been repeatedly suggested to jurors that Hernandez’s love of smoking marijuana helps to explain his innocence. Hernandez smoked marijuana, which is legal in Massachusetts for medicinal purposes but illegal for recreational uses, on a daily basis. According to Hernandez’s attorneys, Lloyd was instrumental in satisfying Hernandez’s craving for marijuana. Lloyd was Hernandez’s so-called “blunt master” in supplying marijuana and skillfully rolled joints. Two nights before Lloyd’s death, the two men—who were connected through their romantic relationships with sisters Shayanna Jenkins and Shaneah Jenkins—smoked marijuana together at Hernandez’s “flop house” in Franklin (Mass.). The defense’s basic theory is that Hernandez not only had no reason to kill Lloyd but that Hernandez had every incentive to protect his blunt master.
On Monday, Hernandez’s legal team once again nudged jurors to conclude that marijuana helps to explain Hernandez’s innocence. In answering questions from Hernandez attorney Charles Rankin, Shayanna Jenkins testified that a mysterious cardboard box that she hastily—and covertly—removed from Hernandez’s home a day after Lloyd’s death “smelled skunky...it smelled like marijuana.” Jenkins, who began her testimony last Friday, also testified that Bristol County (Mass.) prosecutors had not previously asked her about the smell of the box at the time she picked it up in a storage room in Hernandez’s home.
Could it have been merely marijuana in the box?
Viewed from a light most favorable to Hernandez, it would have been logical for Hernandez to want marijuana removed from his home and for the removal to happen quickly and covertly.
Consider the circumstances at this time. Police had already searched the exterior of Hernandez’s home and it was only a matter of time before they would obtain a warrant to search the home’s interior. If officers discovered marijuana in the home, they could have arrested Hernandez and charged him with possession of more than one ounce of marijuana. That charge, if proven, would have carried a penalty of up to six months in jail. If officers found substantial amounts of marijuana plus financial records suggesting drug deals might have been conducted in Hernandez’s home, Hernandez could have also been charged with the illegal sale of marijuana. This more significant charge would have carried a penalty of up to two years in prison. Worse yet for Hernandez, if officers found more than 50 pounds of marijuana in his home, Hernandez (in theory) could have been charged with trafficking, which if proven would have carried a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
It wasn't only the courts that Hernandez had to fear when it came to marijuana. He also needed to worry about Bill Belichick and Roger Goodell. Had Hernandez been arrested for illegal drugs, he would have faced adverse consequences at the hands of his employer, the New England Patriots, and the National Football League. From this lens, Jenkins’s testimony about smelling marijuana from the box would make sense, as would the need to remove the marijuana from the home before the cops arrived.
While it is thus plausible that the box might have only contained marijuana, Bristol county prosecutor William McCauley, who helped to arrange for Jenkins to testify with immunity, did not seem to believe Jenkins during this portion of her testimony. Jurors might feel similarly, as explained below. Prosecutors contend that the box instead contained the .45-caliber Glock pistol used to murder Lloyd in an industrial park located approximately a mile from Hernandez’s home. Jenkins’s testimony did not preclude the possibility that the box contained the gun—it’s possible the box contained marijuana and a firearm—but it certainly did not advance the prosecution’s theory about the box’s contents.
Breaking down Jenkins’s recollection of removing and discarding the box
Jenkins on Monday admitted that Hernandez had instructed her by phone that it was “important” she get the box out of the house and that she do so without others noticing. She then testified about how she followed Hernandez’s instructions. Jenkins’s explanation likely left many questions for jurors about her believability and forthrightness.
As Jenkins told it, she retrieved a trash bag from the kitchen and used the bag to carry the box out of the home in a concealed manner. Jenkins also testified that she placed baby clothes over the box. The baby clothes, Jenkins explained, were to ensure “nothing was exposed,” although she curiously added ““I wasn’t necessarily hiding [the box] from certain individuals.” Jurors watched surveillance video taken from Hernandez’s home security system of Jenkins during this sequence. At one point, the video displays Jenkins walking by her sister, Shaneah, who dated Lloyd and was in Hernandez’s home for support as she grieved Lloyd’s death.
Jurors likely questioned the truthfulness of Jenkins’s account when she asserted that Hernandez never told her what was inside the box. They probably also found dubious Jenkins’s explanation that she neither asked Hernandez about the box’s contents nor did she attempt to look inside. While it’s plausible that Jenkins would not look inside the box—Jenkins, after all, had no legal duty to look inside—it constituted an unlikely reaction. This is especially so given what had already occurred by this point in time: Jenkins had asked Hernandez if he had killed Lloyd (Hernandez responded he had not). It would seem peculiar that Jenkins, whose questioning of Hernandez suggested she had imagined a possible link between Lloyd’s death and Hernandez, would not peek inside the mysterious box that Hernandez urgently wanted out of the house.
Jenkins, moreover, delivered inconsistent testimony about the weight of the box. She told McCauley on Monday the box weighed between 35 and 40 pounds, but in 2013 Jenkins told grand jurors it weighed about 25 pounds. Either weight would have constituted a substantial amount of marijuana, particularly for a user of marijuana rather than a dealer. Of course, it’s possible the box might have also contained such marijuana paraphernalia as a bong or pipe. Nevertheless, between Jenkins appearing completely incurious about what was inside the box and the box’s suspicious weight, jurors might struggle to believe her.
Jurors might also be scratching their heads in regards to Jenkins’s testimony about how she discarded of the box. She testified that she borrowed her sister’s car and then “drove around” nearby towns for a while before finding a dumpster to discard the box. She didn’t recall the location of the dumpster, attributing the aimlessness of her journey to “nerves” and the need to “play a neutral role” between “trying to comfort” her sister and—though Jenkins did not directly say it—looking out for her fiancé’s best interests. One of the towns she drove through was Foxboro (Mass), where the Patriots play their games in Gillette Stadium. Jenkins then returned home from the mysterious dumpster, parked the car in Hernandez’s driveway and brought the baby clothes back inside.
Perhaps Jenkins’s least believable statement occurred when she testified that she didn’t recall ever speaking to Hernandez again about the box—even to confirm that it had been discarded. For jurors who were told that Hernandez stressed to Jenkins the importance of the box’s removal, they are likely wondering why Jenkins didn’t verify to Hernandez that the box was gone for good.
While Jenkins seemed foggy about what took place with the box, she exhibited precision in recalling most other pieces of information. For instance, Jenkins told jurors about her history with Hernandez, whom she had met as a classmate while in elementary school. Jenkins elaborated on how their relationship evolved from a friendship in elementary and middle school into an intimate relationship while in high school. Jenkins later testified in detail about various home improvements, including the addition of a personalized Patriots pool table and an enhanced exercise room. She even recalled the individual who had installed the home theater in Hernandez’s home and at what time the installation occurred. Further, Jenkins demonstrated a clear memory in remembering positive experiences in the weekend preceding Lloyd’s death on Monday, June 17, 2013. These experiences included having breakfast with Hernandez’s mother, going out to dinner at Longhorn Steakhouse with Hernandez and their daughter and planning a picnic for her family.
The contrast in detail and recollection between Jenkins’s testimony about the box and her testimony about most other topics was striking. The fact that Jenkins spoke eloquently and fluidly about those other topics while struggling to talk about the box only accentuated this contrast. Unfortunately for Jenkins—and Hernandez—the contrast could lead some jurors to find her lack of memories about what took place hours after Lloyd’s murder to be more suggestive of an unwillingness to implicate Hernandez than a willingness to truthfully testify.
Jenkins portrays Hernandez as unfaithful in their relationship
One of the more moving sequences in Monday’s testimony occurred when Jenkins spoke about difficulties in her relationship with Hernandez. Jenkins acknowledged that Hernandez was unfaithful. She also described how her relationship with him “was worth fighting for” even if it required “compromising” and accepting infidelity. She added that she and Hernandez had planned to wed on April 12, 2014 in California.
Jenkins’s testimony about Hernandez cheating on her could hurt and help Hernandez’s case in the eyes of the 15 jurors, 10 of whom are women. From a negative standpoint, Hernandez cheating on his fiancée and the mother of his infant daughter reflects poorly on his moral compass. Jurors have already heard that Hernandez tried to kiss the babysitter, Jennifer Fortier, at his flop house and dance with a woman, Kasey Arma, at the Rumor Nightclub in Boston. Now they have heard from Hernandez’s fiancée that Hernandez may have often been a womanizer. To be clear, character evidence is inadmissible in a trial unless the defendant makes his character an issue. But prosecutors often try to “indirectly” get in character evidence. Hernandez being unfaithful doesn’t make him any more likely to have murdered Lloyd, but Hernandez’s attorneys do not want jurors to dislike or resent him—especially if they ultimately find his guilt or innocence to be a close call.
On the other hand, Jenkins portraying Hernandez as a womanizer suggests she had reasons to leave him and fewer reasons to lie on his behalf in this trial. This makes her testimony supporting Hernandez arguably more believable.
Jenkins describes Lloyd and Hernandez as close and friendly
In addition to her crucial testimony about a marijuana odor emanating from the bag, Jenkins advanced Hernandez’s defense by describing a close bond between Hernandez and Lloyd. She detailed the first time Hernandez met Lloyd, which occurred at Hernandez’s home after a preseason Patriots game in August, 2012. Thereafter, Lloyd and Shaneah Jenkins would occasionally stay over Hernandez’s home. Hernandez and Lloyd, Shayanna Jenkins explained, would smoke marijuana in Hernandez’s “man cave.” She did not speak about any hostility between the men, instead describing them as friends and marijuana buddies.
Keep in mind, the prosecution is expected to rest its case by next week. Although motive is not a required element for a murder conviction, jurors typically want an explanation as to why the defendant would have intentionally tried to kill the victim (or, though joint venture, shared the intent to see the killing occur). Prosecutors have yet to establish a clear reason why Hernandez would have wanted Lloyd murdered. Jenkins’s testimony on Monday did not help the prosecution in this regard.
Jenkins describes Carlos Ortiz as an outsider: possible preview of the defense
In a potential preview of Aaron Hernandez’s forthcoming case-in-chief, Jenkins framed co-defendant Carlos Ortiz as something of an outsider in the group. She mentioned that while she knew co-defendant Ernest Wallace, she knew very little about Ortiz, who was at her house the night of Lloyd’s murder.
Jenkins claimed she had only met Ortiz once before, and it was at an inn in Newport (R.I.). Rankin tried to pounce on this testimony, asking Jenkins “Would it be fair to say that [Ortiz] tagged along [spouse of Hernandez cousin] T.L. Singleton” when they met at the inn. McCauley objected to the question and Judge Susan Garsh sustained, but to me it was a telling exchange. Ortiz—who along with Wallace will face separate trials—has reportedly tried to cooperate with prosecutors but has been deemed non-credible. Wallace, in contrast, supposedly remains close to Hernandez, who some reports suggest is paying Wallace’s legal fees. If Hernandez were to try to blame Lloyd’s death on someone else, there’s an excellent chance that person is Ortiz. Stay tuned.
Michael McCann is a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. He is also the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law.