New disclosures and witness statements emerging in the murder case against Aaron Hernandez leave the former New England Patriot with dwindling options for a defense strategy against charges that could keep him locked up for life, legal specialists say.
Statements from one of the men allegedly with Hernandez the night Dorchester’s Odin Lloyd was killed provide for the first time a first-hand account, though hazy and potentially self-serving, of what happened in the North Attleborough industrial park where Lloyd was shot in an execution-style slaying.
Carlos Ortiz’s version of the June 17 shooting, contained in court documents released in Florida this week, appears to corroborate security camera footage allegedly showing Hernandez, Ortiz, and another man, Ernest Wallace, picking up Lloyd in Boston and then driving him to the industrial park where he was killed. Ortiz says he then heard, but did not see, the fatal shots.
“I don’t think Hernandez can say he doesn’t know Lloyd or he wasn’t in the car,” said Boston criminal defense lawyer Stephen J. Weymouth, commenting on potential defense strategies. “He can point the finger at either Wallace or Ortiz and say the two of them did it completely on their own and he had nothing to do with it.
“That’s about all he’s got at this point.”
In Ortiz’s version of the shooting, he stayed in the car while Hernandez, Lloyd, and Wallace got out together to urinate in a secluded area of the industrial park.
“Mr. Ortiz explained that he then heard gunshots,” police wrote in an application for a search warrant for Wallace’s home in Miramar, Fla. “He added that Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Wallace got back into the vehicle without Mr. Lloyd and the vehicle fled.”
Ortiz told police it was too dark to see who fired the shots, but that Wallace later told him Hernandez had acknowledged pulling the trigger.
Though seemingly damning, Ortiz’s version is open for attack by the defense, said former Middlesex district attorney Gerard T. Leone, an experienced prosecutor not part of the case. “It’s really convenient that he stayed in the car, and it sounds contrived to get out of culpability,” he said. “It makes his account suspicious.”
Police have apparently not recovered what is believed to be the murder weapon, a .45-caliber handgun. The absence of this piece of physical evidence, with the fingerprints and ownership information it could provide, could make it easier for Hernandez to argue that one of the others pulled the trigger.
“Whenever you have more than one person surrounding a murder, it’s going to be a case of finger pointing,” said Ann McGonigle Santos, a professor at Suffolk University law school and a former prosecutor in the Middlesex district attorney’s office. “And, without the gun, it’s a viable defense. They just have to create reasonable doubt that it wasn’t Hernandez and was one of the other men.”
Hernandez is charged with gun violations and first-degree murder in the slaying of Lloyd, a 27-year-old semiprofessional football player found dead at the industrial park, which is near Hernandez’s North Attleborough home. Wallace has been charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact, and Ortiz faces a weapons charge based on video footage allegedly showing him carrying a gun.
According to the new documents, Ortiz told investigators that he arrived at Hernandez’s North Attleborough home with Wallace around midnight June 17. At the time, he said, Hernandez was not home, but returned soon and was carrying a handgun.
The three men left Hernandez’s home in a rented Nissan Altima, stopped at a gas station, and proceeded to Lloyd’s home in Dorchester to pick him up. Ortiz told police that during the ride Hernandez admonished Lloyd for “chilling” with people the NFL player had a problem with. The two men then shook hands to make up, Ortiz said.
They drove to North Attleborough, according to Ortiz, who told investigators he fell asleep during the ride. He said he woke as the car stopped in the industrial park and the three others got out.
Later that afternoon, Hernandez, Wallace, and Ortiz returned the Nissan to the rental agency and rented a silver Chrysler 300, Ortiz told investigators. After dropping Hernandez off in North Attleborough, Wallace and Ortiz went to a Franklin apartment leased by Hernandez.
Ortiz said Wallace let him into the apartment and left for “a long interval of time.” When Wallace returned, the two drove to Bristol, Conn., in the rented Chrysler.
Ortiz’s interview with Massachusetts investigators occurred when he showed up for a probation hearing in Connecticut on June 25.
The following day, Hernandez and Ortiz were arrested.
Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter then released a public notice asking for help locating Wallace and the silver Chrysler 300, which was found within hours.
The following day, Wallace walked into the Miramar police station and turned himself in.
Prosecutors, as well as lawyers for Ortiz and for Wallace, have not said whether either man has cooperated further with investigators.Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.