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Hernandez trial Day 31: Does defendants' odd behavior signal guilt?

Does the fact co-defendants Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz acted strangely in the days after Odin Lloyd's murder point to them, and Aaron Hernandez, being guilty of Lloyd's murder, or was it unrelated? That topic took center stage on Day 31 of Hernandez's murder trial.

Does the description of someone being “jittery” and “crazy” suggest to you that he’s nervous about having committed murder, or does it sound more like he’s high on drugs? Or both?

Every word in a trial matters. This was especially apparent on Friday, the 31st day of the trial of Aaron Hernandez for the murder of Odin Lloyd. Jurors listened to extensive testimony from residents of Bristol, Conn., Hernandez’s hometown, about their interactions with co-defendants Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz in the days after the murder.

TRIAL COVERAGE: Opening statements | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30

The Reverend Irene Tucker Singleton was one such resident. The 78-year-old ordained minister is the grandmother of Thaddeus “T.L.” Singleton, the deceased husband of Tanya Singleton​, Hernandez's cousin and a suspected accomplice. Rev. Singleton recalled occasions of visits by her grandson’s friend “Bo,” one of three nicknames associated with Wallace, in addition to “Fish” and “Crash.” Rev. Singleton told jurors that Wallace was normally a talkative and sociable guy, but that he seemed unusually subdued when visiting along with another man—“Charlie”, a.k.a. Carlos Ortiz—days after Lloyd’s murder. Rev. Singleton noticed Wallace and Ortiz in her backyard “talking quietly” with Tanya Singleton and appearing “nervous” and “secretive.” An unusually introverted Wallace “wasn’t acting like himself” and “wasn’t comfortable,” Rev. Singleton recalled. She also described Ortiz as “acting crazy” and seeming “jittery.” She eventually asked her grandson to tell Wallace and Ortiz to leave her home.

Rev. Singleton’s testimony is important because Bristol County (Mass.) prosecutors contend that after helping Hernandez murder Lloyd in North Attleboro, Mass., Wallace and Ortiz left town and regrouped in Bristol. Wallace and Ortiz allegedly relied on the assistance of Tanya Singleton, whom prosecutors believe was taking orders from Hernandez and Hernandez’s fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins. Hernandez’s attorneys categorically reject this account as pure fiction designed to fit a false narrative about Hernandez. They instead imply that Wallace and Ortiz were strung out on drugs while in Bristol.

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​During cross-examination, Hernandez attorney Charles Rankin tried to lead Rev. Singleton to attribute Wallace and Ortiz behaving oddly to suspicion they had engaged in excessive drug use. Rankin did so because some of the descriptive adjectives Rev. Singleton employed were open to interpretation. For instance, a person acting “jittery” would be consistent with that person having recently used cocaine or phencyclidine (a.k.a. angel dust, which has been linked to the three co-defendants). But it would also be consistent with that person exhibiting a high degree of anxiety, and one reason for a person to show visible signs of anxiety would be fear of imminent arrest. Rev. Singleton, however, signaled to Rankin that drug use might have been explanatory for Wallace and Ortiz’s odd behavior. She acknowledged that Ortiz had seemed high when she had previously met him, although she stressed that she did not know him as well as Wallace.

Bristol County assistant district attorney William McCauley then conducted a “re-direct” of Rev. Singleton, where he asked her questions for a second time. He specifically asked Rev. Singleton to clarify how she defined “jittery” and “crazy” in the context of interacting with Wallace and Ortiz. In response, Rev. Singleton offered a definition of “jittery” seemingly more in line with the anxiety of a guilty conscience than the restlessness of drug use: “It’s like I am now—nervous, not settled, kind of just like me [here on the witness stand].” She then added that Ortiz “was moving around a lot, wringing his hands, and just kind of down in the face. He appeared depressed and nervous.” As to what she meant by “crazy,” Rev. Singleton explained, “For me, it meant he wasn’t acting rational.” Although Rev. Singleton’s clarifications did not exclude the possibility that Wallace and Ortiz were high on drugs, Bristol County prosecutors were likely pleased with her answers.

Testimony about a suspicious road trip to Georgia

Rev. Singleton’s daughter EunaRitchon also proved to be a significant witness on Friday. Ritchon recalled Wallace and Tanya Singleton visiting her Bristol home a few days after Lloyd’s death. At the time, Ritchon had been planning a road trip to Georgia to visit her daughter and grandchildren. Tanya Singleton, however, encouraged her to accelerate her travel plans and leave that evening and bring her and Wallace along as well.

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​Ritchon recalled getting her car’s oil changed and packing hastily. She also watched Tanya Singleton hand a brand new cell phone to Wallace. Taken alone, handing someone a new phone is not suggestive of criminal activity. Yet in the context of Wallace possibly fleeing with the aid of Tanya Singleton, it could signal a conscious effort to cover one’s tracks.

Jurors likely became more suspicious of Wallace and Tanya Singleton when Ritchon described the unusually scenic route the three adopted for the journey to Georgia. Wallace, Ritchon remembered, told her they would use “back roads” for the trip.This was true, though they would also depart “around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.” and thus long after rush hour. While there was no testimony to this effect, jurors may have suspected back roads were used to avoid cameras found at highway tolls. Police check points are also less common on back roads.

Ritchon also recalled Wallace placing a “black trash bag with clothes in it” in the trunk of the car. McCauley made sure jurors heard that point, as it may have reminded jurors of earlier testimony of Jenkins placing a black trash bag in a car trunk a day after Lloyd’s death. Prosecutors believe the bag carried by Jenkins contained the murder weapon, thought to be a .45-caliber Glock pistol.

Jurors may have also developed misgivings about Wallace when hearing Ritchon discuss the car ride to Georgia. Ritchon testified that while making rest stops, Tanya Singleton and Wallace would walk some distance from the car in order to have private conversations. Similar to handing someone a new cell phone, conversations away from a car could signal nothing dubious. But in the context of accusations that individuals are fleeing a crime scene, those same conversations can seem suspicious.

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​Ritchon then recalled arriving in Georgia, from where Wallace would soon catch a bus to Florida. Days later he would turn himself in to Florida authorities. Jurors may have reasoned that Wallace opted to get to Florida by vehicle because there are no metal detectors and only minimal surveillance compared to air travel.

During cross-examination, Rankin led Ritchon to acknowledge that she had seen Tanya Singleton and Wallace “have private conversations before,” though she insisted they seemed “quieter than usual” on this trip. Ritchon, moreover, agreed with Rankin that while some back roads were used for the trip, they also drove on interstate highways for part of the journey. Ritchon’s answers on cross-examination likely tempered the impact of her earlier testimony.

Additional testimony by Bristol residents

David Gorneault and his wife Elizabeth also testified on Friday about their interactions with Wallace, whom they had known for years, in Bristol days after Lloyd’s murder. They described him as unusually quiet, and David Gorneault noted that Wallace asked to use his phone.

During cross-examination, Rankin stressed Wallace’s links to drugs. This is important because if Wallace and Ortiz acted oddly because of drugs, or perhaps because of a drug deal that had gone wrong​ and was unconnected to Lloyd, it would distance them—and, by implication, Hernandez—from Lloyd’s murder. David Gorneault acknowledged that Wallace often “called looking for drugs,” including the painkiller Percocet. Gorneault, however, rejected Rankin’s suggestion that Wallace called him looking for angel dust.

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.