Prosecutors stunned Judge Susan Garsh’s courtroom on Tuesday by calling Patriots owner Robert Kraft to the stand during the trial of Aaron Hernandez.
Jurors will soon deliberate whether former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez murdered Odin Lloyd. Will they care that Hernandez apparently lied to his former boss, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, about his whereabouts the night of Lloyd’s death?
Bristol County (Mass.) prosecutors stunned Judge Susan Garsh’s courtroom on Tuesday by calling Kraft to the stand. Along with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and 303 other persons, Kraft had been listed as a potential witness for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Prosecutors, however, had given no indication that Patriots officials would actually be called. That changed when the 73-year-old billionaire took the stand.
Assistant district attorney William McCauley focused his questioning of Kraft on a private conversation between Kraft and Hernandez at Gillette Stadium on June 19, 2013—two days after Lloyd’s death. The conversation, Kraft remembered, took place in a trainer’s office and lasted about five-to-ten minutes. To give a sense of context, while Hernandez was in the stadium at this time, media had camped outside Hernandez’s home in North Attleboro (Mass.) waiting for any new developments. This media frenzy, Hernandez’s attorneys have argued throughout the trial, reflected selective leaks by law enforcement to journalists in order to pin the blame of Lloyd’s death on Hernandez. This was a chaotic and surreal week for Hernandez and for everyone connected to the Patriots.
Kraft recalled why he approached Hernandez that day at the stadium. Kraft explained he was genuinely concerned for the well-being of his 23-year-old tight end, who only a year earlier had caught 8 passes for 67 yards and touchdown in the Patriots’ 21-17 Super Bowl XVLI loss to the New York Giants. Kraft remembered that he asked Hernandez to look him straight into the eye and explain what exactly happened. Hernandez, according to Kraft, did just that and unequivocally proclaimed his innocence.
Kraft added that Hernandez then attempted to explain why he was innocent. Hernandez, Kraft recollected, shared that he and Lloyd had a “social relationship” because they were in romantic relationships with two sisters, Shayanna Jenkins and Shaneah Jenkins. This account appears true. Unfortunately for Hernandez, other parts of his explanation to Kraft ran counter to testimony and evidence presented during this trial. This was particularly true when Kraft recalled that Hernandez “hoped that the time of the incident became public because he was at a club at that time.”
Multiple witnesses and video evidence contradict what Hernandez told Kraft about his whereabouts. Hernandez, along with fiancée Shayanna Jenkins and friends, was a patron at the South Street Café in Providence (R.I.) several hours before Lloyd’s death. Hernandez and Jenkins then drove home, where co-defendants Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz were waiting. Surveillance video taken from several locations—including from Hernandez’s home, a gas station and cameras on the house of Lloyd’s Boston neighbor—appears to show Hernandez with Wallace, Ortiz and Lloyd shortly before Lloyd’s death. No testimony has placed Hernandez at a club when Lloyd died.
Legal impact of Hernandez “lying” to Kraft
On one hand, Hernandez’s apparent lying to Kraft might be of minimal significance to jurors. In a sense, Kraft told jurors nothing new about whether Hernandez played any role in Lloyd’s death. Kraft offered no insight on DNA, footwear impression, firearm or drug issues related to the case. Kraft, moreover, knew no one connected to the crime other than Hernandez, whose relationship with Kraft was limited to that of an employer and employee. In truth, Kraft only recounted a brief conversation with the defendant, who predictably denied any involvement in the crime.
On the other hand, Kraft’s testimony will be memorable to jurors for at least two reasons. First, Kraft is revered in Massachusetts as a local icon. He not only owns the Super Bowl Champion Patriots but his purchase of the franchise from James Orthewein in 1994 prevented the team from moving to St. Louis. Even if some of the 15 jurors aren’t Patriots fans, they almost certainly know about Kraft and have likely heard kind statements about him over the years. It’s thus safe to assume jurors were extra-attentive while Kraft spoke.
Second, Kraft’s testimony was straightforward and interesting. During his time on the stand, Kraft shared several nuggets of information that likely caught the ears of jurors. For instance, Kraft mentioned that he had a special greeting with Hernandez whereby Hernandez would “hug and kiss me.” Jurors, who have heard countless hours of testimony about cell phone records and footprints over the last two months, surely welcomed Kraft’s more engaging and accessible testimony. Along those lines, jurors will no doubt remember Kraft vividly recall Hernandez peering into his eyes and denying any involvement in “the incident.” They’ll also remember that Hernandez seemingly lied about his whereabouts. Along those lines, jurors might resent Hernandez for lying to an admired figure like Kraft. This would not be beneficial to Hernandez’s defense.
Kraft, whose team is being sued by families of alleged Hernandez victims, says little about Hernandez’s life and past
Although the Patriots severed ties with Hernandez on June 26, 2013—the day Hernandez was charged with Lloyd’s murder—they remain connected to him through the law. Families of two men (Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado) Hernandez is charged with murdering in Boston in July of 2012 have sued the Patriots and Kraft Enterprises as part of a $6 million wrongful death lawsuit originally filed against Hernandez. The basic theory of the claim against the Patriots is that the team acted negligently in hiring and supervising Hernandez, and this supposed negligence was one cause in Hernandez allegedly murdering the two men. The Patriots are well-positioned to defend against this lawsuit. Normally employers are only responsible for the wrongful actions of employees when those employees act within the scope of their employment. Hernandez’s possible involvement in a murder that occurred late at night in Boston during the off-season seemingly falls outside the scope of Hernandez’s employment with the Patriots. Nonetheless, the lawsuit is a reminder that Hernandez’s link to the Patriots—and Kraft—continues to this day.
Some of Kraft’s testimony on Tuesday was at least indirectly connected to the legal theories espoused by victims’ families against the team. Attorneys for those families were likely paying close attention to Kraft’s testimony. Kraft testified he knew little about the life of Hernandez outside of the stadium. Also, when asked about his knowledge of Hernandez’s life and football accomplishments while Hernandez was a student-athlete at the University of Florida, Kraft remarked, “I don't follow all those details….[but] I knew he was very good [at football]." Kraft, in other words, implied he had no knowledge of any serious troubles in Hernandez’s life prior to the murder charges in June 2013.
Kraft answers question about Hernandez’s contract, which remains subject of NFLPA grievance
Hernandez is also linked by law to the Patriots through his now-terminated employment contract with the team. In 2012, Hernandez’s agent, Brian Murphy of Athletes First, negotiated a five-year contract extension for Hernandez that included a $12.5 million signing bonus and a contract value of up to $40 million. At the time, the extension was the second most lucrative in league history for a tight end. The Patriots and Hernandez, as represented by the National Football League Players’ Association, are locked in a grievance over whether the team must pay Hernandez $3.25 million in unpaid signing bonus money. Should the Patriots ultimately pay this money, it might not go to Hernandez or his fiancée. A court might instead require Hernandez use it to pay any civil judgments to the families of the three men (Lloyd, De Abreu and Furtado) he is charged with killing.
Perhaps to the chagrin of NFLPA attorneys, Kraft distanced himself from the negotiation and details of Hernandez’s contract extension. When asked why the Patriots signed Hernandez to the extension, Kraft simply responded, “Because he was a very good player.”
Other testimony from Tuesday, including clarification on Lloyd as the “blunt master”
While Kraft stole the show on Tuesday, two other witnesses provided noteworthy testimony. Patriots chief of security, Mark Briggs, was one of them. Like Kraft, Briggs spoke with Hernandez at Gillette Stadium two days after Lloyd’s murder. Also like Kraft, Briggs recalled Hernandez telling him he was at a club when Lloyd was killed. Hernandez, according to Briggs, even “swore on his baby’s life he was telling the truth.” Considering that Hernandez appeared to have been lying about his whereabouts, Hernandez allegedly swearing on the life of his infant daughter, Avielle, surely won no points with jurors.
Briggs, however, also testified that Hernandez told him “Odin Lloyd was like family.” This statement supported the defense’s core thesis that Hernandez would not kill Lloyd because they were close.
Lloyd’s former good friend Daryl Hodge also shared important testimony while on the stand on Tuesday. Hodge testified that while he did not remember Lloyd selling marijuana, he agreed with Hernandez attorney Michael Fee’s depiction of Lloyd as uniquely skilled at rolling joints. Lloyd, in fact, even created his own techniques for rolling joints. This testimony worked in favor of the defense’s argument that Lloyd was Hernandez’s “blunt master” and thus would not have wanted him dead.