Shayanna Jenkins, Aaron Hernandez' fiancée, testifed at Hernandez' murder trial in a drama-filled day on Friday. Jenkins's testimony could ultimately prove to be a boon for prosecutors.
FALL RIVER, Mass.—A day that began with jurors standing a couple feet from Aaron Hernandez ended with an outburst by an attorney for Hernandez’s fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins. In between marked the most dramatic, and perhaps most significant, day yet in the trial of Hernandez for the murder of Odin Lloyd. Most crucially, Jenkins testified that Hernandez ordered her to meet up with co-defendant Ernest Wallace hours after Lloyd’s murder and give Wallace $500. Jenkins added that co-defendant Carlos Ortiz was a passenger in Wallace’s car when she met with Wallace. Jenkins’s testimony advanced the prosecution’s argument that Hernandez, Wallace and Ortiz conspired to murder Lloyd and that Hernandez led the conspiracy. Jenkins, however, also testified that she had no idea to which item Hernandez’s infamous text about a “box” referred. This portion of Jenkins’s testimony denied prosecutors of a potential opportunity to link Hernandez to firearms used in connection with Lloyd’s death.
Jenkins could be the star witness for the prosecution. In a case where neither Hernandez nor his co-defendants are expected to testify, Jenkins is the person in Hernandez’s inner circle most knowledgeable about ties between Hernandez and Lloyd’s murder. Jenkins also testified with immunity, meaning she could not be charged with crimes relating to her testimony so long as she told the truth. Immunity also meant, as explained on SI.com Thursday night, that Jenkins could not effectively plead her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Prosecutors, in other words, had boxed Jenkins into a corner going into Friday. If she knowingly lied on the stand, she would lose her immunity and face perjury charges, which in Massachusetts carry a potential penalty of life in prison when the perjury occurs in a murder trial. Alternatively, if Jenkins had refused to testify or refused to answer specific questions, Judge Susan Garsh would have held her in contempt of court and jailed Jenkins until the end of the trial. Instead, Jenkins testified and, to varying degrees, answered questions posed by Bristol County (Mass.) prosecutor William McCauley.
Jurors probably found Jenkins to be believable, especially since her testimony advanced the prosecution’s case
Odds are high that jurors found Jenkins, who will be back on the witness stand on Monday, to have testified truthfully on Friday. This was apparent in several respects.
First, Jenkins often paused for several seconds in response to McCauley’s questions and frequently looked away as if she was genuinely trying to recall information. Given that McCauley asked her about events from two years ago, it would make sense that she needed time to recall information. Jurors were watching Jenkins intently while she answered. Natural human behavior can go a long way in convincing others that a person is telling the truth. Whether Jenkins’s courtroom performance was sincere or merely the product of good coaching by her attorneys is unknown, but when she responded, “I don’t remember,” as she often did, it usually did not come across as untrue or evasive.
Second, Jenkins approached her testimony seriously and never displayed emotion toward Hernandez, with whom she has often exchanged “I love yous” while in court. On Friday, Jenkins seemed to avoid looking at Hernandez altogether, let alone smiling at him or otherwise signaling affection. To be sure, Jenkins may have been advised by her attorneys to look directly at the prosecutor, judge and jurors, and not at Hernandez. Whether it was natural or scripted, Jenkins displayed poise throughout her time on the stand. I watched the jurors closely and they seemed captivated by Jenkins’s testimony.
Third, Jenkins undermined Hernandez’s defense in several respects. This implies that Jenkins had not coordinated with Hernandez’s attorneys, who are separate from those retained by Jenkins, prior to testifying. In turn, this suggests Jenkins’s testimony was believable. Consider the following points from Jenkins’s testimony Friday that work against Hernandez:
Money to Wallace supports joint venture: As discussed above, Jenkins admitted that Hernandez directed her to provide money to Wallace, who shortly thereafter began a road trip to Florida. This testimony directly supported the prosecution’s theory of a conspiracy led by Hernandez, who arguably tried to help Wallace flee or gave him hush money. Under Massachusetts law, Hernandez could be convicted of first-degree murder if jurors conclude that he shared the intent of Wallace and Ortiz to murder Lloyd and meaningfully contributed to the murder. Under joint venture, Hernandez did not have to shoot Lloyd to be held responsible for Lloyd’s murder. Jurors might regard Hernandez directing his fiancée to supply financial assistance as indicative of intent.
A more cynical assessment of Jenkins’s testimony and her 'not remembering'
While to some extent Jenkins advanced the prosecution’s case against her fiancé, there were times when she seemed oddly reticent and elusive. Many of Jenkins’s answers on Friday consisted of not remembering, not knowing or not being sure. This was even apparent when Jenkins was asked to recall information that would have seemed memorable and clearly known to her.
Most noticeably, Jenkins consistently could not recall her conversations with Hernandez, with whom phone records indicate she spoke repeatedly in the hours after Lloyd’s murder. To the extent she recalled, Jenkins's memories were of Hernandez wanting to be sure she was O.K. and of similar reference points that reflected well on Hernandez. It seemed curious that Jenkins would not remember Hernandez offering any detail or substance about the murder investigation, especially considering Hernandez was meeting with police hours after Lloyd’s death.
Jenkins also expressed a surprising inability to recall characteristics of a gun she found in Hernandez’s kitchen. This was true even after McCauley showed her a .45-caliber Glock pistol, the type of gun thought to have been used in Lloyd’s death. Considering that Jenkins recalled confronting Hernandez about finding a gun in the kitchen and “giving him a stern look,” one might suspect she would remember how Hernandez responded. Not the case here, as Jenkins said she didn’t remember if Hernandez said anything.
Jenkins’s immunity helps her avoid charges
Jenkins admitting under oath that she supplied financial assistance to Wallace at the behest of Hernandez would likely have led to criminal charges, but for the fact that she possessed immunity. Keep in mind, prosecutors clearly view Jenkins as part of the joint venture that led to Lloyd’s death. McCauley told Judge Garsh without jurors present that Jenkins “is a woman who has been involved in all kinds of things” related to Lloyd’s murder. Under Massachusetts law, Jenkins could have been charged with accessory after the fact and conspiracy, among other charges that would threaten decades in prison. Her immunity ensures she will not be charged with those crimes.
Drama at the beginning and end of the day
Friday’s proceeding began in an unusual fashion as Judge Garsh met individually with 10 of the 16 jurors as part of a mid-trial voir dire. She did so in front of her bench and in a huddle with Hernandez and attorneys for both sides. At several points, jurors stood right next to the 6'1", 245-pound Hernandez, who towered over most of them. Judge Garsh never explained the purpose of the meetings, but one juror, a middle-aged male, was dismissed for personal reasons unrelated to the trial. There are now 15 jurors (10 women and five men) remaining. Twelve will be randomly picked to decide Hernandez’s fate. If for some reason three more jurors are dismissed or otherwise become unavailable, Judge Garsh would have no choice but to declare a mistrial. In that scenario, Hernandez would likely be retried later this year but with a new jury.
The close of Friday’s proceeding also caused fireworks. At 4 p.m., Judge Garsh dismissed the jurors for the day and informed them the trial will resume on Monday. Once the jurors left the room, Jenkins’s attorney, Janice Bassil, yelled at Judge Garsh for ordering that Jenkins appear again on Monday. Bassil explained her frustration at the fact that she has a trial scheduled next week and cannot be with Jenkins. Judge Garsh was not persuaded. She informed Bassil that another attorney from Bassil’s law firm could attend on her behalf. Judge Garsh also warned that Jenkins would be held in contempt of court if she does not appear on Monday.
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.