What truly was the relationship between Aaron Hernandez and Odin Lloyd? That was the main question at hand on Day 27 of Hernandez's murder trial.
FALL RIVER, Mass. — Jurors charged with deciding whether Aaron Hernandez murdered Odin Lloyd heard new details Friday about how Lloyd spent the last weekend of his life. Those details shed light on the relationship between Hernandez and Lloyd. They might also illuminate whether Hernandez viewed Lloyd as so essential to his continued marijuana usage that it would have been irrational for Hernandez to want Lloyd dead.
Akil Joseph, a close friend of Lloyd, recalled meeting Lloyd and several other friends at the Boston nightclub Venue on Friday, June 14, 2013. Lloyd, according to Joseph, acted normally, and that remained true as the group of friends trickled over to the adjacent nightclub Rumor. Hernandez was also at Rumor. Joseph stressed that he did not observe Lloyd interact with Hernandez. Corroborating Joseph’s recollection was surveillance video from Rumor. It indicated that while Hernandez and Lloyd left Rumor at about the same time, Hernandez spent much of his time either buying drinks or talking to people other than Lloyd. The video also depicts Hernandez and Lloyd as positioned in different crowds while outside the nightclub. Joseph, who testified that he regularly visited Lloyd’s home in Boston and had known Lloyd’s family since childhood, added that he had never met or seen Hernandez until that evening in Boston.
Joseph’s testimony advanced the contention of Bristol County (Mass.) prosecutors that Hernandez and Lloyd were mere acquaintances rather than friends. According to this perspective, Hernandez and Lloyd spent time together mainly because of personal obligation: They were in romantic relationships with sisters Shayanna Jenkins and Shaneah Jenkins, respectively, and thus had no choice but to interact with one another. Joseph’s testimony might make jurors more skeptical of the defense's portrayal of Hernandez and Lloyd as close buddies with Hernandez viewing Lloyd as his “blunt master.” If Hernandez and Lloyd were so close, why would Joseph, apparently one of Lloyd’s closest friends, regard Hernandez as a complete stranger?
Defense: Lloyd acting normally and his talents for rolling marijuana advance Hernandez’s case
While Joseph’s characterization of Hernandez and Lloyd to some extent favored the prosecution’s theory, several of his responses under direct examination and many of his answers to questions posed by Hernandez attorney Michael Fee during cross examination, cut in favor of the defense.
First, Joseph retold how on the Saturday and Sunday preceding Lloyd’s murder, Lloyd drove a black Chevy Suburban. This was presumably the same black Chevy Suburban rented and used by Hernandez to drive Lloyd, along with Hernandez’s babysitter and her friend, to Hernandez’s “flophouse” in Franklin (Mass.) early Saturday morning. Joseph’s testimony about this vehicle likely reminded jurors of how Hernandez and Lloyd partied together in the car and then crashed at the flophouse. They might also have been reminded that the morning after the night at the flophouse, Hernandez texted his fiancée and told her that Lloyd “took care of” him. This text suggested that Lloyd made sure Hernandez was O.K. after a night of heavy marijuana and alcohol use. Jurors might find it counterintuitive that 42 hours after expressing appreciation for Lloyd’s care, Hernandez would want Lloyd dead.
Second, Joseph acknowledged that Lloyd behaved normally when they interacted over the weekend and that Lloyd did not appear afraid of Hernandez or anyone else. “He was regular,” Joseph conceded when asked by Fee if Lloyd was in “good spirits.” Joseph also detailed an active weekend for Lloyd. Joseph said on Saturday he attended the semipro Boston Bandits football game in which Lloyd played. He and Lloyd also attended a party at the Fire and Ice restaurant in Cambridge (Mass.) on Saturday night, and on Sunday the two friends attended community cookouts. Joseph also described meeting up briefly with Lloyd at around 1 a.m. on Monday, June 17, 2013, just a couple of hours before Lloyd was killed. At no time did Joseph describe Lloyd as acting strangely. Joseph’s testimony, in fact, suggested that Lloyd had no suspicion he was in any imminent danger. While Lloyd acting as if nothing was wrong does not disprove the possibility of a planned hit on his life, it may give jurors reason to demand more insight from prosecutors on why Lloyd was killed.
Third, Fee led Joseph to link Lloyd not only to marijuana but to a special talent in rolling marijuana blunts. Joseph admitted that he called Lloyd on Sunday, June 16, 2013, to determine the possibility of a marijuana purchase at one of the cookouts. Joseph also agreed with Fee’s portrayal of Lloyd as being gifted at rolling marijuana blunts and as routinely smoking marijuana. Hernandez’s attorneys want jurors to link Hernandez and Lloyd through a shared love for marijuana. They also want jurors to conclude that Lloyd supplied Hernandez with marijuana and, through adeptly crafted blunts, facilitated Hernandez’s marijuana usage. Should this account be accurate, Hernandez would seemingly have been incentivized to protect Lloyd rather than hurt him. Joseph’s testimony therefore advanced the defense’s theory, at least to some degree.
Witnesses describe Hernandez at Boston nightclub
Several other witnesses testified on Friday, the 27th day of the trial, about Hernandez’s behavior at the Rumor nightclub in Boston during the evening of Friday, June 14, 2013 and the morning of Saturday, June 15, 2013. Previously in the trial, the valet account manager at the nearby W Hotel testified that he thought he saw Hernandez tuck a semiautomatic pistol into his waist belt. An investigation by hotel security, however, determined that Hernandez did not appear to be carrying a weapon.
On Friday, Zeid Nabulisi, who was the manager of Rumor when Hernandez visited, authenticated surveillance video of the former New England Patriots star being patted down while entering the nightclub and hanging out with friends while in the club. Jeffrey London, who was the head VIP host, noted that Hernandez spent part of his time at the club’s bar, where London ordered him a Hennessey cocktail (Hernandez’s favorite drink). London added that he later watched Hernandez lean against a wall using his phone. The testimonies of Nabulisi and London confirmed the prosecution’s proposed timeline that Hernandez was at Rumor, but they also portrayed Hernandez as fairly ordinary—at least, ordinary for a 23-year-old celebrity athlete out on the town with friends.
Jose Manuel Vega, who was a patron at Rumor while Hernandez was present, also testified on Friday. He described how he tried to take a photo of Hernandez in the club. Hernandez ducked down, however, as Vega took the photo. Jurors were shown the photo, in which Hernandez is seen slouched down. While ducking in a photo might be suggestive of suspicious activity, it might also might be innocuous. Also, consider that Hernandez, who was clearly familiar with surveillance systems from having one in his home, seemed willing to be recorded on surveillance cameras throughout the evening. Absent other information, it would seem odd that Hernandez was willing to be photographed in and outside the nightclub but nonetheless sought to avoid detection in Vega’s photo.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sides with Judge Garsh on disallowing testimony about Hernandez’s “prior bad acts”
In a separate and expected ruling on Friday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected an appeal by prosecutors on witness testimony. Prosecutors objected to Judge Susan Garsh’s order that prevents Alexander Bradley from testifying on whether Hernandez shot him in the eye outside a Miami nightclub in 2013. This legal issue has been covered extensively on SI.com. In short, testimony about Hernandez possibly shooting Bradley would constitute testimony about a prior bad act and such testimony is normally inadmissible on grounds it is irrelevant and prejudicial.
Testimony about a prior bad act can become admissible, however, when the defendant puts his own character at issue in the trial. Prosecutors highlighted Hernandez attorney Fee’s suggestion that Hernandez would not shoot Lloyd because Lloyd was a friend. In the prosecutors’ view, Fee’s statement should permit witness testimony about Hernandez possibly shooting Bradley, who is sometimes described as a friend of Hernandez. The prosecutors’ argument was vulnerable on a number of grounds, including that it is not clear if the relationship between Hernandez and Lloyd was analogous to the one between Hernandez and Bradley; that the trial is already in midstream and allowing testimony now about Bradley being shot might be particularly prejudicial to Hernandez and his legal strategy; and that whether Hernandez shot Bradley remains unproven as Hernandez was never criminally charged and Bradley’s lawsuit against him is pending.
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.