Hernandez suicide sparks questions about true justice

The week before the NFL Draft is typically filled with excitement as all 32 teams seek to improve their rosters while hundreds of young men anticipate a new future by living their dreams and playing professional football. Yet, the attention this week was centered on the apparent suicide of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. The former star who was convicted of murder in April 2015 was found dead in his cell on Wednesday morning, leaving behind repercussions for the murder victims’ families and bringing up questions of the efficacy of the criminal justice system.

The story of Hernandez begins with off-the-field issues during his time at the University of Florida. While his success on the field helped the Gators win the 2009 BCS National Championship Game and earned him the John Mackey Award given to the best tight end in college football, his career was plagued with drug problems, though he only ever failed one drug test in February 2008. More pressing was a violent personality that surfaced in a 2007 dispute over not wanting to pay for two drinks, despite Florida quarterback Tim Tebow offering to “help resolve the conflict” by paying the bill himself. Florida tight ends coach John Hevesy said that Tebow later attempted to help as a mentor but “struggled with [others’] immaturity.”

The Patriots still selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and it appeared that his career would take off with quarterback Tom Brady alternatively passing to him and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski. In 2012, the Patriots signed him to a new five year deal worth up to $40 million, and it looked as if Hernandez had left his troubled past behind him.

The situation quickly soured in June 2013 when Hernandez was arrested and charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee. The prosecution offered a compelling case against Hernandez, presenting more than 130 witnesses including Patriots owner Robert Kraft who provided “crucial” testimony about Hernandez’s whereabouts during the time frame of the murder. With more than 400 pieces of evidence, the defense was forced to concede that Hernandez was at the scene of the crime, though they maintained that he was merely a witness to the murder and tried to point the blame at co-defendants Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz. The jury disagreed, rendering a guilty verdict for first-degree murder after more than 35 hours of deliberation, and Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.

Hernandez was later tried for the murders of Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu in 2012, but was found not guilty on Friday, April 14, 2017. The prosecution in this case was “light on forensic evidence,” relying instead on the testimony of Alexander Bradley. The defense opted for an Ace Attorney-like strategy, pointing out a number of contradictions between Bradley’s testimony and the evidence that was presented by the prosecution and pointing the blame on Bradley. The jury found Hernandez not guilty of murder, deeming him guilty of just one count of illegal possession of a firearm. Hernandez was emotional at this result, and his defense team believed there was hope in his appeal for Lloyd’s murder, saying on Tuesday that there was a good chance they could get that ruling reversed.

Hernandez’s death leaves the families of Furtado, de Abreu, and Lloyd in a tenuous situation when it comes to their civil suits against him. Massachusetts law includes a legal principle called abatement ab initio. Under this principle, someone who dies while pursuing appeals for their convictions is presumed to be innocent as the defendant would not have had all the chances they could to prove their innocence. Because of it, evidence established in the criminal case against Hernandez cannot be presented in any civil proceedings. The civil case for Lloyd’s murder had already ruled in favor of the plantiffs, with only the amount of damages remaining to be argued. It is possible that the ruling could change due to the erasure of Hernandez’s conviction. The Furtado and de Abreu families held their cases back, and it may make the process of seeking damages more difficult.

As in many high profile cases, it is questionable whether justice was truly served or not. In the 2015 conviction, jurors were satisfied that Hernandez’s high profile status did not excuse his actions and that he received the sentence he deserved. In his separate 2017 acquittal, it could be argued that even a convicted murderer deserves to be found not guilty if he did not commit the other crime. Yet, questions of favoritism still surround that acquittal and the response of former teammates to his apparent suicide. “I’m gonna miss u bro, you my family [sic]!” tweeted former Florida safety Ahmad Black. “Despite other allegations and whatever else u had going, ill always love you bro [sic].” Former Florida and current Miami Dolphins center Mike Pouncey wrote on Instagram, “To my friend my brother! Through thick and thin right or wrong we never left each other’s side. Today my heart hurts as I got the worse news I could have imagined. It was just a day ago we shared our last convo [sic]. I will forever miss you and love you bro. we [sic] will meet again rest easy!” Critics see athletic entitlement intact, believing that teammates, coaches, fans, and others would protect the name of the team rather than honor the victims by seeking justice.

The only thing that is certain is that the players looking forward to their careers in the NFL must remember that they are not gods who can do no wrong. They are, in fact, human beings who could lose everything if they commit destructive behavior. The tale of the rise and fall of Aaron Hernandez should serve notice that their futures are not guaranteed against their own actions.