FALL RIVER (CBS/AP) — Aaron Hernandez‘s murder conviction was erased in Fall River Superior Court Tuesday because he died before his appeal could be heard.
Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end, was found dead in his prison cell April 19 in what was ruled a suicide. He had been serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd.
Judge Susan Garsh said a legal doctrine that calls for vacating convictions when a defendant dies before an appeal can be heard was binding precedent. She said she was compelled to follow it.
“This court cannot know why Hernandez chose to end his life and declines to infer an intent by Hernandez to relinquish his appellate rights or intent to interfere with the course of justice from his suicide, a tragic act that may have complex and merit causes,” Garsh said in her ruling.
She added that Hernandez could have been motivated, not by the conviction, but by other reasons, such as religion.
“While the (Department of Corrections) report does state that Hernandez had recently mentioned to one inmate a rumor that if an inmate has an open appeal and dies in prison he is acquitted of the charge and deemed not guilty, there is no indication that he had been so advised by any attorney,” Garsh said.
“The mere awareness of such a rumor hardly is sufficient any inference the Commonwealth seeks to draw in respect to the defendant’s specific intent,” she said, concluding that neither prosecutors nor the court, could pinpoint a motive.
Hernandez’s appellate attorney told the judge that the state’s highest court has applied the legal doctrine “without exception,” even in cases of suicide.
Prosecutors argued that dismissing his murder conviction would reward Hernandez’s decision to take his own life.
Bristol County District Attorney Tom Quinn told reporters after the hearing that he will appeal.
“It defies common sense to allow a defendant to be absolved of criminal liability so carefully arrived at by a jury because he intentionally took his own life before the appeals process could run. By his suicide, the defendant waives his right to appeal,” Quinn said.
“To allow the defendant to exploit this outdated rule in Massachusetts undermines confidence in the fair administration of justice, and the victim’s and the community’s right to the integrity and respect of a jury’s verdict,” he continued.
Odin Lloyd’s mother, Ursula Ward, said she was not angry with the ruling.
“In our book, he’s guilty, and he’s gonna always be guilty,” she said, fighting back tears.
Hernandez died just five days after he was acquitted in a separate double slaying in 2012.
Appellate attorney John Thompson told reporters he still has doubts about whether Hernandez killed himself.
Thompson claimed he has recent correspondence from Hernandez in which the former Patriots star said he was interested in pursuing an appeal.
Hernandez’s lead attorney in his recent double murder trial, Jose Baez, has pledged to do an independent investigation into his death.
Earlier in the hearing, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, Aaron Hernandez’s fiancée, asked that the notes found in Hernandez’s jail cell not be released. Garsh denied that motion.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Kendall Buhl reports