A new Rolling Stone article that dives deeply into the life of former NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez suggests that the case against Hernandez for the alleged murder of Odin Lloyd is anything but certain. As one prominent legal expert says in the piece, "he may walk like George Zimmerman walked."
Citing several legal experts, Rolling Stone editor Paul Solotaroff and Boston Herald columnist Ron Borges argue that Hernandez's conviction is no sure thing, especially since he's eluded the justice system in the past. "Both on the field and off, he’s been hell to bring down; the man has a genius for breaking loose. According to several experts, he might just do it again, make one last run to daylight around the edge."
On the whole, the profile describes Hernandez as an “overgrown goof” growing up, well-mannered and disciplined by his father. But once his father died of a medical infection when he was 16, Hernandez “seemed to implode.” He took to smoking marijuana and even angel dust. He surrounded himself with a “cohort of thugs, bringing stone-cold gangsters over to the house to play pool, smoke chronic and carouse.” And this all proceeded to worsen once he signed a $40 million contract with the Patriots and became highly paranoid.
Hernandez's guilt in the murder of Odin Lloyd appeared to be cut-and-dry not long ago, with both implicit and explicit acceptance. His former NFL team, the New England Patriots, released him from a five-year contract outright and still refuses to pay a guaranteed bonus for offseason workouts. The NFL Players Association sheepishly filed a grievance to recover that money, not specifically for Hernandez but on behalf of ensuring that this would not create a precedent that would affect other players. The implication, from both his union and his former team, is that Hernandez is not someone who can be defended. His guilt is almost assured.
Not so, the Rolling Stone article says, citing Hernandez's high-powered legal team and his ability to evade prosecution up to this point, as well as the prosecution's lack of eyewitnesses and its reliance on circumstantial evidence.
Lack of eyewitnesses
Particularly important is the lack of a legitimate witness to the murder. The prosecution's star witness is Hernandez's friend Carlos Ortiz, but his legitimacy is not so stellar, the authors explain. Ortiz claims he stayed in the back of the car during the shooting and couldn't be sure what happened, a "contention everyone but his government-appointed lawyer laughs at." Importantly, he claims that he heard another friend there, Ernest Wallace, say that Hernandez was the one who pulled the trigger. But Ortiz (pictured below) has admitted to using angel dust and is a "stumble-bum crook," the authors write. "[H]is account is probably worthless if he takes the stand."
As USA Today writes, "Does he sound like a credible witness – especially as he stands with the most minor charge, a Let's-Make-A-Deal illegal possession of a firearm?"
As far as witnesses go, though, Ortiz is the prosecution's only option. Hernandez's mother refuses to testify and sits in jail for contempt. His step-father died in a car crash, grimly explained as "a loose end neatly knotted; an accomplice who’d never flip." Lloyd, of course, was killed. And neither Wallace nor Hernandez will turn on the other.
The circumstantial evidence against Hernandez is substantial, the article admits:
There’s no shortage of that, of course, and much of it is compelling: the security tape seems to show Hernandez with the black .45 the night of the crime; the videotapes that track his car’s movements, from the time he picked up Lloyd at his house in Boston to the second they entered the industrial park before the shooting; the shell casing recovered from the rental car that matched the ones found beside Lloyd.
Those seem to connect him to the scene of the crime, but not to the crime necessarily. There's no smoking gun, no witnesses, and a lack of a clear motive for why Hernandez would kill his friend.
And first-degree murder carries a sentence of life without parole, a major decision for a jury to make. Or so says Boston lawyer Anthony Cardinale, who would know — he has previously defended notorious mobsters like John Gotti. "In these cases, juries think that reasonable doubt means no doubt at all,” he said in the article. “If the defense can create even the slightest crack, he may walk like George Zimmerman walked – probably guilty, but the DA overcharged."
But unlike in the Zimmerman trial, the defense could choose to put Hernandez on the stand and deny his personal role in the killing. “If he says he was shocked by the shooting and only agreed to scare [Lloyd], that might get him off,” Cardinale says. “It’s not a crime to be there if you had no reason to expect that someone would be shot.”
It wouldn't be the first time Hernandez dodged a crime to which he had some connections.
Since 2007, he’s been charged with, or linked to, the shootings of six people in four incidents. Three of the victims were gruesomely murdered. One survivor, a former friend named Alexander Bradley, has had multiple operations and lost his right eye. The other two survivors were shot in their car outside a Gainesville, Florida, bar after an altercation involving Hernandez and two of his teammates his freshman year at the University of Florida.
Again, each of these has some compelling circumstantial evidence, but by no means do they show Hernandez's certain guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The authors suggest that his evasion of criminal trials in so many prior offenses may have prepared him for his demise. "In hindsight, it might have been the worst thing for him. He seems to have concluded, with an abundance of probable cause, that he was untouchable," they write.
Untouchable he may yet prove. "And so here we are now, a year out from trial, and the open-and-shut case against Aaron Hernandez probably won’t be as easy to prosecute as it seems," the authors write.
This is the second time in weeks that Rolling Stone has shown a certain affinity to Boston-area criminals after its profile and controversial cover photo of Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The magazine appears to have learned its lesson; Bob Dylan graces this week's cover.
Photo of Aaron Hernandez on the Patriots: AP Photo/Charles Krupa; Photo of Carlos Ortiz: AP Photo/The Boston Globe, George Rizer, Pool; Photo of Hernandez in court: AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye.