FALL RIVER, Mass. -- One of Aaron Hernandez’s key defenses is that because he was very good friends with Odin Lloyd he never would have murdered Lloyd. Today prosecutors for Bristol County tried to undermine the foundation of this defense through the testimony of Shaneah Jenkins, a woman who dated Lloyd and the sister of Hernandez’s fiancé, Shayanna Jenkins.
While Shaneah Jenkins acknowledged that Hernandez and Lloyd liked to smoke marijuana together, she also testified that the two were merely in the “beginning stages of a friendship.” She added that Hernandez and Lloyd virtually never hung out together unless Jenkins was present. Jenkins’ testimony implied that Hernandez and Lloyd were together more as a matter of convenience and happenstance than a desire to see one another. She thus contradicted Hernandez attorney Michael Fee, who in his opening statement on Thursday framed Hernandez and Lloyd as close friends and deeply caring about one another.
In the coming weeks, prosecutors will lobby jurors to conclude that the relationship between Hernandez and Lloyd was complicated and often distant and frosty. Prosecutors will portray Hernandez and Lloyd as more like acquaintances or associates: they were two men who used drugs together and who shared a personal tie through the Jenkins sisters, but they were also two men who weren’t especially close and who didn’t share an emotional bond with one another. The obvious inference prosecutors want jurors to make is that Hernandez would be more likely to kill Lloyd if he didn’t care much about Lloyd. Shaneah Jenkins’ testimony today will help the prosecution cultivate this perception.
Shaneah Jenkins’ account of the Hernandez-Lloyd relationship will soon face scrutiny. Next week she’ll be cross-examined by Hernandez’s attorneys. Expect them to aggressively push Jenkins into discussing positive experiences shared by Hernandez and Lloyd. The more Jenkins retells life events where Hernandez and Lloyd seemed close and caring for one another other, the more Jenkins’ characterization that the two were in the “beginning stages of a friendship” would seem off-key.
Earlier on Friday, jurors heard testimony about the discovery of Lloyd’s body in the industrial park located less than a mile from Hernandez’s home in North Attleboro, Mass. As expected, the testimony was graphic and sobering. David Swithers, president of Advanced Electronic Design, explained that he saw Lloyd’s body laying on the ground on June 17, 2013 and that there were “flies around his nostrils.”
Testimony about the discovery of Lloyd’s body is important for a couple of reasons. First, it establishes that a murder took place. This is an obvious point, but it must be made in order to convict Hernandez. Second, the testimony crystalizes in the minds of jurors that this case is fundamentally about justice for a fellow human being -- a young man who was brutally executed and whose body was left callously in an industrial park for insects and animals to attack.
Although the prosecution succeeded in establishing how Lloyd’s body was found, Swithers stumbled a bit in his testimony. Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that while he told police many people walk and jog through the park, he didn’t know that as a fact. At first glance, the discrepancy may seem inconsequential: whether or not many people walk in the park where Lloyd was murdered doesn’t disprove that Lloyd was murdered or that he was murdered in the park, nor does it exonerate or incriminate Hernandez.
Nonetheless the discrepancy could prove significant for at least a couple of reasons.
First, it’s not a good sign for the prosecution when a witness whose testimony should be fairly straightforward encounters difficulties on cross examination. If a witness like Swithers is vulnerable to Hernandez’s attorneys, what can we expect when witnesses with more complicated testimonies -- such as forensic and ballistic experts -- take the stand? Remember, the case against Hernandez is a circumstantial one. Through testimony, it will require convincing linkages between Hernandez and the circumstance of a video, photograph, cell phone triangulation result and other materials in order to work. The prosecution will need to have the witnesses well prepared for cross-examination, and today reminds prosecutors of that necessity.
Second, level of traffic in the park is relevant to one particular circumstance that could implicate Hernandez: whether his shoe’s footprint was found there. The more traffic in a park, the more plausible it would be that the same shoe of Hernandez’s size could be found in the park and not be that of Hernandez.
The blizzard-abbreviated first week of the Hernandez trial has come to a close, but there will be plenty of developments in the weeks ahead.
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.