Aaron Hernandez, an Enigma on Trial

During my years covering the Patriots, I never quite knew what to make of the sometimes genial, sometimes volatile young star. A visit to his trial brought those old feelings back

FALL RIVER, Mass. – He enters the room from a side door and saunters slowly to his chair. He always had a great strut, the type that announced he was kind of a big deal, or at least he thought he was. His eyes dart from one end of the onlookers to the other to check for any new or familiar faces in the crowd. He flashes that sunny smile to someone he recognizes, acknowledges another. He takes a seat next to one of his teammates and whispers in his ear. There’s a little laughter.

That scene could have played out—and did—in the Patriots’ locker room hundreds of times since Aaron Hernandez entered the NFL in 2010. Despite being situated across from Tom Brady, next to Rob Gronkowski and a few stalls down from Vince Wilfork, Hernandez always walked into that space like he owned it. He’d flash that smile to play with a reporter or two among the crowd of media. He’d nod at a few others he knew wouldn’t take the bait.

This time, however, the scene wasn’t playing out in the Patriots’ locker room. Those days are long over. The setting was Courtroom 7 on the fifth floor of the Fall River Justice Center. For the past seven weeks this has served as Hernandez’s new locker room, and it is scheduled to continue to be for weeks to come. He is on trial for the June 17, 2013, first-degree murder of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd. Hernandez used to play games for a living. This is for keeps. Lose, and he could spend the rest of his life in prison. The stakes could not be higher for Hernandez, nor for Ursula Ward, Lloyd’s mother, who is a constant presence in the first seat behind prosecutors, and her family.

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For me, the sight of Hernandez in this courtroom is uncanny. I covered the Patriots for the Boston Globe from October 2010 through the 2013 draft, pretty much concurrent with Hernandez’s time with the team. When I looked at him in that courtroom last week, it was difficult not to see the oak walls, judge’s bench, tables and lectern dissolve into the blue and gray locker room inside Gillette Stadium. That side door used to lead to the Patriots’ training area, where Hernandez spent a lot of time—or just said he did, to avoid the press. Now it’s a solid wood door that leads to his holding area, and he enters with three Bristol County sheriff’s deputies.

When Hernandez leans to his right, it’s not to joke with Gronkowski but to converse with Charles Rankin, his attorney. Rankin is part of Hernandez’s new “team”—a trio of high-powered lawyers that also includes Michael Fee and James Sultan, who sit at tables to the right of Judge Susan Garsh. On the other side sits the prosecution team, which believes it has a strong case against Hernandez. Beyond them is the jury, 10 women and six men (four will be designated as alternates once the trial concludes and deliberations begin), who will decide Hernandez’s fate. Even after this trial, there will be more for Hernandez. He has also been indicted in the 2012 drive-by double murder of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, allegedly over a spilled drink at a nightclub.

Hernandez, 25, has traded in his Patriots sweats and shorts for a suit and tie. Where once he watched game film, now the screen in front of him gives Hernandez an up-close look at the evidence being submitted against him. He takes some notes, or at least appears to. He’s often pouring a glass of water or yawning during the long days of testimony that stretch from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (The new cure for insomnia should be listening to a prosecutor lay out testimony of footprint analysis at a crime scene—at least three people in the gallery dozed off during that particular exposition.)

I don’t know what I expected in coming here—maybe a more serious Hernandez, given the gravity of the situation. Perhaps that was me being naïve. The Aaron Hernandez I once covered used to playfully wrestle with the young children of Patriots staffers on the field after training camp. I never thought a day like this would come, even when I saw a glimpse of the other side of Hernandez—the aggressive, angry side that the prosecution has tried to paint.

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Ursula Ward, mother of the victim, Odin Lloyd, has been a constant presence in the courthouse. (Steve Senne/AP)

Ursula Ward, mother of the victim, Odin Lloyd, has been a constant presence in the courthouse. (Steve Senne/AP)

At the scouting combine in February 2013, I had heard from a source close to Hernandez that he was flying in from Los Angeles to Indianapolis to meet with the Patriots and ask for a trade. Hernandez’s reason, the source said, was that he felt in danger from a gang back home in Bristol, Conn., that was making demands on him after he’d signed his new $40 million contract extension, and he wanted to distance himself from them.

I could not confirm the details of the story, and didn’t know what to make of it. As a reporter, you could never be sure if Hernandez was being square with you, because he’d say something, and then wink or laugh. The same was often true with stories about Hernandez told by others.

When Hernandez indeed showed up in Indianapolis on the Sunday of the 2013 combine, I figured he would fly under the radar there, then get on a plane back to Los Angeles the next day. But when a handful of NFL writers walked into one of the few open bars in Indy that Sunday night, there he was. Hernandez exchanged pleasantries with our group and bought a round. As the only New England beat writer there, I chatted with him about the Patriots and about teammates who might be leaving during free agency.

At that point Hernandez whipped around, got in my face, unleashed a stream of expletives and concluded, “I’m not a child! You’re not my dad!”

That was the extent of our interaction until later that night, when I looked out the front window of the bar and saw Hernandez urinating on a running taxi cab, with the driver yelling at him. All I could think was, Great, Hernandez is going to get in trouble, and I’m going to have to write about this nonsense. I asked a confidant of his if he might want to go get his friend. “He won’t listen to me,” the confidant said, “so why don’t you go get him?”

For some reason I didn’t think this to be unreasonable. I went outside, walked up to Hernandez and suggested he should probably use the restroom inside unless he wanted to get arrested. No response. Then I lightly touched his elbow to guide him back into the bar and said, “Aaron, come on. This is stupid.” At that point Hernandez whipped around, got in my face, unleashed a stream of expletives and concluded, “I’m not a child! You’re not my dad!”

I replied, “Well, you’re acting like a child right now. Fine, do what you want to do.” Then I went back inside and joined some friends at a table.

A while later, Hernandez came back inside, shot me a My bad glance and joined the conversation. I remember him stating his desire to move to receiver full-time in the Patriots’ offense (something he had pleaded for with receivers coach Chad O’Shea, who probably didn’t take the request seriously). Hernandez was back at the bar when it was time for me to call it a night. I shook his hand and said, “I heard there’s some stuff going on with you and your family. Hope you get the resolution you’re looking for. See you later.”

Until last week, I’d seen Hernandez only one other time since then—on the day after Lloyd’s murder, when Hernandez was peeking out from behind his curtains as the media staked out his house in North Attleborough, Mass.

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A Nike shoe expert testifies. (Aram Boghosian/Boston Globe/AP)

A Nike shoe expert testifies. (Aram Boghosian/Boston Globe/AP)

Now he sits as a three-time accused murderer, listening as lead prosecutor William McCauley has built a strong circumstantial case against him, with 100 witnesses called and at least as many articles put into evidence.

Witnesses and surveillance video have linked Hernandez and alleged co-conspirators Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace with Lloyd on the night in question. The murder took place at an industrial complex close to Hernandez’s house. Lloyd sustained six bullet wounds. Five shell casings were found at the scene, and another was later found in a rental car returned by Hernandez. A state police sergeant testified that all six gun casings matched the same gun.

Then there are the shoes. Hernandez was seen on surveillance cameras in his home and at a gas station wearing Nike Air Jordan Retro 11 Lows in a size 13. That model was new to the market in 2013, and only 93,000 of all sizes were in circulation. State police were able to match a footprint close to Lloyd’s body to a size 13 Nike Air Jordan Retro 11 Low. During the initial investigation, the police took photos of Hernandez’s shoe closet, pictures that show three models of shoes whose prints were found at the crime scene, including the Air Jordans. When police realized the significance of the shoes and returned with a search warrant, the footwear was no longer in the house, but an empty box for a pair of size 13 Nike Air Jordan Retro 11 Lows was found.

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At one point in the trial, the prosecution used video surveillance to show Hernandez’s fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, leaving the basement of the couple’s home with a white trash bag and a large box and placing into the trunk of her sister’s car. Shaneah Jenkins testified that her sister asked to borrow her car the day after the murder to get cash to pay the housekeepers, who testified that they were instead paid with a check.

Still, the prosecution has not been able to directly tie Hernandez to the murder through a witness to the crime, the gun or a strong motive. To close with anything but a strong circumstantial case, the prosecution would need Hernandez’s fiancée to testify about what she observed, was told or did in the aftermath of the murder.

Even though Shayanna Jenkins has shown no signs of cooperating with prosecutors, the testimony from two recent witnesses could edge her toward testifiying against Hernandez to secure her future and that of their two-year-old daughter. The couple’s babysitter testified that Hernandez kissed her in his Franklin “flophouse” before she put an end to his advances, and last week video was shown of a young woman grinding on a willing Hernandez in a Boston nightclub two days before the murders.

Jenkins, who has appeared at the trial sporadically and hasn’t attended since March 6, has received immunity from prosecution, but that doesn’t mean she will testify. As colleague Michael McCann has deftly pointed out, Jenkins can no longer effectively claim protection under the Fifth Amendment. That only guards against self-incrimination, which the immunity takes care of. But she can still refuse to testify and be held in contempt of court. That could last until the end of the trial or beyond, but Jenkins would have succeeded in not testifying against Hernandez.

The prosecution should be nearing the end of its case, and then it will be the turn of the defense, which on cross-examination has been able to poke holes in even the strongest evidence brought against Hernandez. There is much drama still to be played out.

As for me, I’m still trying to reconcile the dual images of Hernandez that I encountered over the two-and-a-half years that I covered him—the confident jokester who could dominate a locker room, and the volatile young man who could explode in an instant, as he did outside that bar in Indy. During a recess on the day I visited the courtroom, he spotted me on the other side of the gallery and nodded in my direction. Which Hernandez was it? I couldn’t tell. A grim nod back was all I could muster.

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