Aaron Hernandez trial: Did adversary unwittingly help defense's case?
In what is expected to be the last week of the prosecution’s case-in-chief in the trial of Aaron Hernandez for the murder of Odin Lloyd, a mysterious box in the basement of Hernandez’s home continued to take center stage on Wednesday.
On Monday, you’ll recall that Hernandez’s fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, testified that she hastily removed the box from Hernandez’s basement a day after Lloyd’s murder. Hernandez, Jenkins explained, told her it was “important” that she remove the box. Jenkins described the box as weighing as much as 40 pounds and emitting a marijuana odor, but Bristol County (Mass.) prosecutors believe the box contained much more than marijuana. They contend it held the .45-caliber Glock pistol used to murder Lloyd and that Hernandez wanted the box discarded before police discovered it. That the box contained 40 pounds of marijuana, moreover, would seem unlikely unless Hernandez was a drug dealer.
Yet on Wednesday, jurors heard testimony from Hernandez’s former friend and now adversary, Alexander Bradley, indicating that Hernandez’s involvement with marijuana was far more extensive than previously assumed. Bradley also told jurors that while he saw a firearm in a box in Hernandez’s basement, the firearm was not a Glock—meaning it was not the murder weapon. In offering this testimony, Bradley, who is incarcerated in Connecticut, may have unintentionally aided the defense of Hernandez.
Bradley, it should be noted, has sued Hernandez for allegedly shooting him in the face while the two men argued outside a Miami strip club in February 2013. Judge Garsh previously ruled that the alleged shooting and accompanying lawsuit are inadmissible in Hernandez’s trial. Generally, evidence of the defendant’s “prior bad acts” is inadmissible on grounds such evidence can prejudice jurors against the defendant. In contrast, Bradley’s legal troubles are admissible as he is only a witness in Hernandez’s trial and not the defendant.
Bradley’s believability comes under fire from Hernandez’s legal team
Jurors may have doubts about Bradley’s credibility as a witness. Hernandez attorney Charles Rankin made sure jurors heard about Bradley’s extensive rap sheet. Bradley faces a bevy of criminal charges stemming from multiple incidents at a Hartford nightclub and other locales. Those charges include criminal possession of a firearm, criminal use of a firearm, resisting a police officer and reckless endangerment. At times on the stand, Bradley seemed unsure or confused about all of the charges he faces. While Judge Susan Garsh cautioned jurors that Bradley’s legal troubles do not compel them to disbelieve him, jurors are nonetheless permitted to take Bradley’s legal matters into consideration when assessing Bradley’s testimony.
Rankin also drew jurors’ attention to Bradley’s inconsistent testimony about whether he sold marijuana to Hernandez. On Wednesday, Bradley recalled selling Hernandez marijuana, a statement consistent with some of Bradley’s previous testimonies. But in one previous testimony, Bradley claimed he had never been Hernandez’s marijuana provider. Bradley insisted he never made such a statement and blamed it on the inaccuracy of a court reporter. Bradley’s explanation is undermined by the fact that he would have had an opportunity to correct the court reporter’s transcript but he evidently didn’t avail himself of that opportunity.
Rankin also implied that Bradley’s cooperation with Bristol County prosecutors could be part of a deal whereby he spends less time behind bars if he implicates Hernandez. Prosecutor William McCauley rejected that insinuation, noting that Bradley’s legal troubles are in Connecticut and the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office has no jurisdiction there. McCauley further stressed that Bradley rejecting a plea deal in Connecticut in hopes of reaching a better deal with Connecticut prosecutors is unrelated to Bradley’s testimony in the Hernandez trial. Still, jurors might wonder if Bradley agreed to offer testimony that implicates Hernandez in expectation of leniency for his own misdeeds.
Bradley describes Hernandez as a “chain smoker” of marijuana; fits defense’s portrayal of Hernandez and the box
While jurors were provided multiple reasons to question Bradley’s credibility, Bradley nonetheless offered relevant testimony on several fronts. This was particularly true when he recalled Hernandez’s consumption of marijuana. Bradley recalled Hernandez buying one to four ounces of marijuana on a weekly basis beginning in 2010 and ending after Hernandez allegedly shot Bradley in February 2013. Bradley explained that he received between 10 and 30 pounds of marijuana from an associate and he would then distribute some of it to Hernandez. Bradley, who is the godfather of Hernandez’s daughter, observed that Hernandez “smoked marijuana very often” and was a “chain smoker.” Hernandez, according to Bradley, would sometimes smoke an ounce of marijuana in just one day.
From the vantage point of Hernandez’s defense, Bradley’s depiction of Hernandez as a heavy marijuana user is helpful on at least two fronts. First, it corroborates the defense’s theory that Hernandez would not have killed Lloyd because Lloyd was his so-called “blunt master.” Bradley’s testimony portrayed Hernandez as infatuated with marijuana. Lloyd, who provided Hernandez with marijuana and possessed unique talents in rolling blunts, would seemingly have served an instrumental purpose for Hernandez and his drug use.
Second, Hernandez purchasing and consuming so much marijuana would make it more likely that a box where he stores marijuana would contain a substantial amount of the drug. While 40 pounds of marijuana is equivalent to 640 ounces—a truly massive amount of marijuana—it seems more plausible after Bradley’s testimony that Hernandez would store significant amounts of marijuana at his home.
The fact that Hernandez did not seem to run afoul of the NFL’s drug testing policy could also be significant. Despite Hernandez purchasing large quantities of marijuana and smoking significant amounts of the drug on a daily basis, the NFL never suspended Hernandez during his three-year NFL career. Hernandez’s incongruously clean NFL record might be explainable by inadequate NFL testing mechanisms, or perhaps Hernandez utilized an effective evasion technique, such as submitting someone else’s urine to the drug test collector. It is also plausible that Hernandez might have distributed or sold marijuana in addition to using it, although available facts do not corroborate that account. What seems clear is that the box carried by Jenkins out of Hernandez’s home may have had a significant amount of marijuana in it, and that could help explain the box’s substantial weight.
Bradley says the box in Hernandez’s basement had a gun, but not the same type of gun used to kill Lloyd
During direct testimony, Bradley told jurors a seemingly damning point about Hernandez: While staying over at Hernandez’s home in November 2012, he looked inside a lock box in the basement and saw that it contained a gun, in addition to marijuana and cash. This explanation would be consistent with Jenkins taking a box from the basement that gave off a marijuana odor but was heavy enough to contain a gun. The obvious inference for jurors would be that Jenkins discarded a box that contained a gun, and perhaps that gun was the murder weapon.
During cross-examination, however, Bradley clarified that the gun he saw in the box was not a Glock. For Hernandez’s attorneys, this clarification could provide a crucial benefit. If jurors thought Jenkins discarded the murder weapon before Bradley’s testimony, they may be less inclined to hold that view after hearing Bradley talk about a different gun. Jenkins, however, described the box she carried out as a “cardboard box,” which might mean the basement had multiple boxes.
To be sure, the presence of any gun in Hernandez’s home is troubling for the former New England Patriots star since he faces five firearms charges in addition to the murder charge. But by far the most serious charge is murder, and Bradley’s testimony gives jurors a reason to conclude the murder weapon was not in Hernandez’s home after Lloyd’s death.
Bradley says he saw Hernandez hold a Glock pistol in Miami
Not all of Bradley’s testimony advanced the defense’s case. Bradley told the court of a trip he took with Hernandez to Miami several months before Lloyd’s death. During this trip, as Bradley explained it, Bradley met with Hernandez associate Oscar “Pappoo” Hernandez (no relation to Aaron Hernandez). Oscar Hernandez has pleaded guilty to gun charges and allegedly helped to arrange for Aaron Hernandez to receive two .22-caliber Jimenez pistols and a semi-automatic 7.62-caliber rifle. Police reported finding the rifle in Hernandez’s garage, and one of the Jimenez pistols was purportedly located near Lloyd’s body.
Bradley recalled Aaron Hernandez, with Oscar Hernandez and others nearby, holding a Glock pistol in a Miami hotel. “He held it, looked at it,” remembered Bradley, who added that Hernandez “put it on the chair in the living room area of the hotel.” McCauley undoubtedly hopes that jurors connect the dots and reason that Aaron Hernandez held the murder weapon in Florida and did so alongside the man (Oscar Hernandez) who allegedly funneled him guns.
During cross-examination, Bradley’s account of the Miami trip ran into difficulties. Rankin charged that Bradley added mention of Oscar Hernandez only after Bradley met several times with prosecutors. Rankin thus attempted to lead jurors to reason that Oscar Martinez may not have been in the Miami hotel meeting and that Bradley inserted his presence to curry favor with prosecutors. It is also worth noting that even if Hernandez held a Glock while in Miami, it obviously does not prove it was the Glock used to kill Lloyd in Massachusetts. Glocks are amongf the highest-selling gun types in the United States.
Bradley says Aaron Hernandez was suspicious of others and Hernandez complained that Lloyd was “rude”
Prosecutors have struggled to explain why Hernandez would want Lloyd dead. They attempted to do so with testimony about Hernandez “staring” at Lloyd in the Rumor nightclub in Boston two nights before Lloyd’s murder, but Hernandez’s attorneys effectively rebutted that sequence. With the prosecution expected to complete its case on Thursday, it appears jurors will not be told a motive for Lloyd’s murder. To be clear, motive is not a required element for murder. Jurors, however, typically want an explanation for why a defendant would have intentionally and with premeditation killed another person.
In his testimony on Wednesday, Bradley hinted at friction between Hernandez and Lloyd and also implied that Hernandez and Lloyd were not especially close. Bradley, who claimed to regularly stay over at Hernandez’s home to smoke marijuana and play video games, recalled Lloyd only visiting Hernandez’s home twice, both times coming with his girlfriend, Shaneah Jenkins, the sister of Hernandez’s fiancée. Bradley also shared details about the awkward first time he met Lloyd. Bradley recalled that Lloyd and his girlfriend had entered the kitchen of Hernandez’s home and Lloyd, without saying hello, walked right past Bradley, “proceeding to go from the kitchen to upstairs.” When Hernandez learned about Lloyd snubbing Bradley, Hernandez, according to Bradley, told Bradley he thought Lloyd “was rude.”
Bradley also told the court that Hernandez “didn’t trust” other people and that Hernandez often seemed suspicious of others’ intentions. This characterization fits into the prosecution’s portrayal of Hernandez as someone who can turn quickly on another person—even a friend or, perhaps, even a blunt master.
Bradley’s remarks did not establish a motive for Lloyd’s death, but the greater social distance jurors perceive between Hernandez and Lloyd, the lower Hernandez’s chances are for a not guilty verdict. Then again, it’s unclear how much weight jurors will place on Bradley's testimony. Only they know that.
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.