Aaron Hernandez's suicide leaves legal loose ends from his final years

5:11 | NFL
Aaron Hernandez: Assessing next legal steps following apparent suicide
Wednesday April 19th, 2017

Former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, whom a jury last Friday found not guilty of murdering two men in Boston, was found dead early Wednesday morning in his jail cell of an apparent suicide. Hernandez was 27 years old. He leaves behind a four-year old daughter, Avielle Janelle Hernandez, his fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins Hernandez, his older brother D.J. Hernandez and his mother, Terri Hernandez.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, Hernandez, who was serving a life sentence without parole for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, hung himself in his jail cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass. The Department of Corrections explains that Hernandez was discovered at approximately 3:05 a.m. and his method of suicide utilized his bed sheet, which he attached to his cell window. Hernandez had also jammed the door to delay entry. He was rushed to nearby UMass Memorial Hospital in Leominster, Mass., and declared dead at 4:07 a.m.

A suicide is always shocking, but the timing of Hernandez’s is especially strange. For the first time since his April 15, 2015 conviction for Lloyd’s murder, Hernandez had a glimmer of hope that he might one day be freed. A Boston jury last Friday found Hernandez not guilty of the murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, two men who were shot to death in a drive-by shooting outside the Boston nightclub Cure in 2012. The jury also found Hernandez not guilty of five of six other charges, convicting him only of unlawful possession of a firearm.

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As I detailed last Friday, Hernandez was in a position to now focus his energies on appealing his conviction of murdering Lloyd. (In Massachusetts, first-degree murder convictions are automatically appealed to the state’s highest court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.) While appeals fail far more often than they succeed, there were interesting aspects to Hernandez’s conviction that might have provided his attorneys with some confidence of winning.

Hernandez was convicted of first-degree murder not because the jury found he killed Lloyd in a premeditated act, but rather because they thought he murdered Lloyd “with extreme atrocity and cruelty,” which in Massachusetts is another rationale for a jury to impose a first-degree murder conviction. Hernandez’s attorneys could have argued that the jury misunderstood how to interpret “extreme atrocity and cruelty” and that the term did not plausibly apply to the circumstances of Lloyd’s murder. Lloyd, who was shot six times in an execution-style murder, was not tortured and may have died instantly or nearly instantly. To be sure, the appeal probably would have failed. But with Friday’s verdict in Boston, there was a path for Hernandez to plausibly imagine his release from prison before the end of his natural life.

Instead, Hernandez’s natural life ended Wednesday.

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The legal aftermath of Hernandez’s suicide

Because Hernandez died before he exhausted his appeals, Hernandez’s convictions for murder and three other charges are technically void. Massachusetts is among the states that recognizes “abatement ab initio,” a legal principle that reasons that since a convicted defendant has a right to an appeal, the failure to exhaust that appeal before the defendant dies leaves the conviction in doubt. This is true even though, as explained above, Hernandez’s chances for a successful appeal were slim.

When a prisoner commits suicide, the correctional facility housing the inmate and other law enforcement agencies will investigate how and why the suicide took place. Correctional facilities use various protocols to prevent inmate suicides, including visually observing the inmate at routine times and monitoring his or her mental health to determine if he or she may be inclined to attempt suicide. If an inmate is deemed to be a suicide risk, the inmate will be monitored more closely and denied access to materials that could facilitate a suicide attempt. At this stage, it is unknown how the correctional facility and its healthcare providers viewed Hernandez’s mental health and whether the facility adequately assessed Hernandez’s mental health needs.

Along those lines, an inmate committing suicide sometimes leads to the family of the deceased filing a lawsuit against the correctional facility. The Fourteenth Amendment’s due process rights, as well as the Eighth Amendment, which safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment, ensure that inmates receive adequate treatment while housed at correctional facilities. The family of an inmate can argue that if prison officials knew or should have known that the deceased inmate was especially vulnerable to a suicide attempt, those officials were obligated to take reasonable steps to prevent such an attempt. Prison officials can’t exhibit deliberate indifference to inmates who are deemed suicide risks. Whether any evidence surfaces that suggests Hernandez was a suicide threat and whether prison officials ignored such evidence is unknown at this time, but Hernandez’s former agent Brian Murphy expressed skepticism Wednesday morning that Hernandez would take his own life.

As mentioned above, the timing of Hernandez’s suicide so soon after winning his trial is strange, at least to those of us on the outside looking in. There could very well be other factors that explain it—including Hernandez’s interactions with other inmates and guards, or perhaps brain injury (some have speculated that Hernandez’s history of violent aggression indicates he may have suffered from CTE).

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Hernandez’s death does not automatically terminate civil lawsuits filed against him by family members of his victims and alleged victims. Normally those lawsuits continue, with Hernandez’s estate replacing him as the defendant. Although the legal burden for proving civil liability is only preponderance of evidence (more probable than not), the nullifying of Hernandez’s convictions through “abatement ab initio” presents an unexpected challenge for attorneys representing the families. Those attorneys—especially those representing the family of Lloyd—would have relied on Hernandez’s convictions to help establish that if he was convicted criminally, which requires beyond a reasonable doubt, then he must be liable in a civil case given the lower burden of proof required. Regardless, it is unclear if Hernandez leaves behind an estate with much in the way of resources. His legal bills have likely been massive, he has not earned income since 2014 and his other potential sources of wealth may not have a simple path to the family he leaves behind.

If Hernandez had a life insurance policy, the policy may dictate that benefits are not paid to his family if the cause of death is suicide. Many life insurance policies, however, stipulate that instead of an outright denial of payment for death by suicide, the payment is delayed for a period of time. When the life insurance policy was purchased often matters, too: a denial is more likely if the suicide occurred within a year or two of the policy being purchased.

Hernandez should also leave behind a pension from playing three years in the NFL. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) protects pensions from creditors, including those with successful civil judgments against defendants. The value of his pension is unknown at this time, but it may provide some funding for his daughter.

No matter how those matters are resolved, Hernandez's life remains almost impossible to understand, and it came to an end on the same day the Patriots, including some former teammates of Hernandez, are at the White House celebrating another Super Bowl victory. How such a talented player could live a double life as a murderer has never made sense and probably never will.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

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