Aaron J. Hernandez died by suicide, the state medical examiner ruled Thursday, as new details emerged about the former New England Patriots star’s last hours and his family sought to have his brain tested for signs of a disease that affects football players.
Three handwritten notes were found beside a Bible in Hernandez’s cell at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, where he was serving a life sentence for murder, officials said. A familiar biblical citation — John 3:16 — was scrawled on his forehead, a law enforcement officer said. And after a brief squabble on Thursday, Hernandez’s brain was destined for Boston University to be studied for signs of disease.
Hernandez’s death at age 27 — he was found hanging in his cell by a correction officer around 3:03 a.m. Wednesday — came less than a week after he was acquitted in a double murder trial, and stoked criticism of the state correctional system.
Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday that the death of Hernandez — or any other inmate — suggests a failure within the prison management system. However, he expressed “full faith and confidence” in DOC Commissioner Thomas Turco.
“Our response is going to be primarily to investigate and to make sure that everybody understands exactly what happened and when, and why,” Baker said.
Investigation results released Thursday afternoon “determined that Mr. Hernandez was alone at the time of the hanging,” the office of Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said in a statement. No signs of a struggle were found, according to Early.
Sometime after 8 p.m. — the last time guards checked on Hernandez Tuesday night — he stuffed his cell door with cardboard to keep would-be rescuers at bay, and hanged himself with a prison bedsheet. He left three notes, though a spokesman for Early would not disclose to whom they were addressed or what they said.
The cause of death, according to the state medical examiner’s ruling, was asphyxia by hanging; the manner was suicide.
About seven hours before his death, Hernandez was on the telephone with Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, his longtime fiancee and the mother of his 4-year-old daughter, according to Ronald Sullivan, one of his lawyers.
“She spoke to him until telephone hours were over at about 8 [p.m.],” Sullivan wrote in an e-mail Thursday. He did not say what the two discussed. Attempts to reach Jenkins-Hernandez for comment since Hernandez’s death have been unsuccessful.
Hernandez, who was convicted of shooting Odin L. Lloyd to death in North Attleborough in 2013, was rushed by correction officers to
UMass Memorial-HealthAlliance Hospital in Leominster early Wednesday, and he was pronounced dead at 4:07 a.m., officials said.
Hernandez’s body was released to Faggas Funeral Home in Watertown, where owner Nicole Faggas said the home had no plans to hold services. She said Hernandez’s body will be shipped soon to another location, which she declined to identify.
Hernandez’s brain is to be sent for study at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center.
The state medical examiner’s office said Thursday afternoon that it would release the brain to BU, in accordance with the family’s wishes, hours after Hernandez attorney Jose Baez accused the state of withholding the brain illegally.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE, is a progressive and degenerative disease, and is found in the brains of many of those who have suffered repetitive head trauma, such as boxers and football players. CTE can cause memory loss, confusion, aggression, depression, and other symptoms.
Baez declined to say whether he believed CTE had contributed to Hernandez’s death, but said he would not accept the conclusion that the death was a suicide until after a full inquiry.
“We’re investigating everything. We’re not rejecting anything. We’re keeping all of our options open, which is what everybody else should be doing,” he said.
In a related development, Hernandez’s lawyers filed court papers in Bristol Superior Court asking a judge to order state prison officials to preserve evidence related to his death, so the attorneys can conduct their own investigation.
The items include Hernandez’s writings; video recordings and logs of Hernandez in his cell; the sheet found on him at the time of his death; any clothes that were removed from his body; recorded calls made to or from Hernandez during the month leading up to his death; recorded calls from any inmate on Hernandez’s cell block during the same period; and any interviews conducted of inmates or prison staff, according to a legal filing.
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, as Hernandez’s family grieved Thursday, his older brother, Jonathan “DJ” Hernandez, sent out birthday wishes via Facebook to their mother, Terri.
“Happy B-Day Mom!” Jonathan Hernandez wrote. “I love you and I know if Aaron was here one more day he would have said he loves you too. Keep smiling because I know Aaron & Dad are both smiling down on us right now.”
Attorney says Hernandez’s brain held ‘illegally’
Hernandez’s suicide came five days after he was acquitted for the murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, who were shot to death on a South End street in 2012. During that trial, Suffolk prosecutors said Hernandez tattooed a confession to the crime on his right arm by adding an image of the murder weapon next to the phrase “God Forgives.’’
“God Forgives” was written backward so it could be read in a mirror, according to testimony during the Suffolk Superior Court murder trial.
Sometime before his death, Hernandez marked his forehead with a reference to a passage in the Bible. He wrote “John 3:16” onto his forehead with red ink, a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said Thursday.
In the King James version of the Bible, the notation refers to the following passage, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’’
The death of the convicted killer came the same day that many of his former teammates were honored at the White House for winning Super Bowl 51. Hernandez had been a football prodigy, selected by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 National Football League draft, and became a key piece of the team’s offense.
The discovery of the three notes came a day after a correction department spokesman said no such notes had been found during an initial search of Hernandez’s cell. Hernandez was not on a suicide watch because he had not signaled he was at risk, Fallon said.
Hernandez’s death is the 27th recorded suicide in Massachusetts state prisons since 2010, and the second this year, according to state records.
Massachusetts has made strides in recent decades to improve mental health care and deter suicides in prison, but the rate of self-inflicted inmate deaths remains among the highest in the country.
“People have made progress on this issue,” Baker said. “But obviously, one is too many, and we’ll investigate this thoroughly and make whatever adjustments we need to.”
He said he would not make decisions based on the early details and rumors surrounding the incident.
“I’m not going to draw any conclusions about this until the investigation is finished,” Baker said.
Under state law, Hernandez’s conviction for the Lloyd murder could ultimately be voided because his trial was not reviewed by the Supreme Judicial Court prior to his death. His appellate attorney said he will file the required paperwork when a death certificate is issued.
That legal technicality could, in turn, require the Patriots to make a multimillion-dollar payment to his estate, a payment the Patriots refused to make following his arrest for the Lloyd killing in 2013, according to lawyers representing relatives of the three murder victims.
However, other specialists suggest his estate would not be eligible for the money because of an earlier grievance settlement with the Patriots. (Story, D3) A spokesman for the NFL Players Association declined to comment.