Metro

Jury felt a heavy burden in Aaron Hernandez case

Many jurors were unaware that Aaron Hernandez was already serving a life sentence and knew little about the former Patriots tight end, the jury forewoman Lindsey Stringer said.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Many jurors were unaware that Aaron Hernandez was already serving a life sentence and knew little about the former Patriots tight end, the jury forewoman Lindsey Stringer said.

The jurors who acquitted Aaron Hernandez in his recent double-murder trial did not unanimously agree that the ex-NFL star was innocent, but they wrestled with the credibility of witnesses and agreed prosecutors did not meet the burden of proof for a first-degree conviction, the jury forewoman told the Globe in an exclusive interview.

The nine women and seven men — 12 jurors and four alternates — never discussed Hernandez’s previous conviction for first-degree murder, which lawyers were required to tiptoe around at trial, and many were unaware that he was already serving a life sentence and knew little about Hernandez, Lindsey Stringer said.

“I want to be very clear that a verdict of ‘not guilty’ does not mean that we declared Aaron Hernandez innocent,” said Stringer, the forewoman, describing how jurors worked through their own definitions of “reasonable doubt” to come into alignment during six days of deliberations.

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“There were basically differences of opinion on the level of potential involvement” Hernandez had in the murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, she said.

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In the week-plus since the verdict, Stringer has thought often of the two young Cape Verdean men who were gunned down seemingly at random in July 2012 and of the relatives who mourn them, as well as those who survived the drive-by shooting and whose lives were forever altered.

When she read the verdict April 14, her voice faltering, tears in her eyes, Stringer was so focused on trying to maintain her composure while addressing the judge and clerk that she did not register what was going on in other corners of Courtroom 906: the sobbing of de Abreu’s and Furtado’s relatives, some of whom walked out, or the tears of joy shed by Hernandez and his fiancée.

She said she had wanted to deliver a measure of justice for the victims and their families, but that a guilty finding on the murder counts would have come at the expense of the jury’s “responsibility to the law,” when there was insufficient proof to convict.

Stringer herself only learned about Hernandez’s earlier conviction for murdering Odin Lloyd after the trial, in a final, informal conversation between the judge and jury.

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While wading through the deluge of media coverage that she had been ordered for nearly two months to avoid, Stringer found herself thinking of Hernandez and the young daughter she had seen briefly in court.

She hoped that the former Patriots tight end would someday confess to whatever role he might have played in these killings while becoming a constructive presence in his daughter’s life, even from behind bars.

So the news last week of his suicide at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center struck like a thunderbolt. She struggled to find the words, but said a statement offered by de Abreu’s father, Ernesto, resonated with her. “That it’s a shame,” she said. “It’s just very sad and tragic, and I really just pray for the Furtado and de Abreu families and for Aaron’s daughter.”

Speaking thoughtfully in a 75-minute interview, Stringer described the emotional weight of being immersed in the trial for so many weeks, bonding with strangers brought together by jury duty and forced to bottle up the trial’s narratives of drugs and violence, paranoia and retribution, when they went home each night.

“We didn’t ask for this, and yet we had an obligation to fulfill,” Stringer said. “Jurors are basically living two different lives. There’s your life at the courthouse, where you’re under intense scrutiny from everyone all the time while you’re there, and then you go home to your regular life and you can’t talk about anything. ‘How was your day?’ ‘Umm . . . fine.’ ”

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Stringer, who is in her 30s, is not a football fan and relocated to Boston less than four years ago. Busy with work as technology director for a nonprofit, she was vaguely aware that Hernandez’s name had been in the news but couldn’t quite place it.

‘I want to be very clear that a verdict of “not guilty” does not mean that we declared Aaron Hernandez innocent.’

Lindsey Stringer, jury forewoman in double-murder trial  

When a summons came to report for jury duty on Feb. 15, she hoped that she would be dismissed quickly enough to return to work by the end of the day.

She did not know that Hernandez’s second murder trial was about to begin, let alone that she would end up as forewoman for a grim, emotionally charged, and highly public trial.

At the time, she was one of 538 potential jurors summoned over multiple days before Judge Jeffrey Locke, a battery of lawyers, and Hernandez, as a first step for empaneling a jury. Some prospective jurors gasped upon recognizing Hernandez, which surprised Stringer.

After filling out a 52-question survey (including questions about what they thought of people who frequented nightclubs or had tattoos), Stringer and the others were told to call an automated system daily to learn if they needed to return. She did, and was summoned again Feb. 27 — hours before she was slated to fly to Tennessee for a conference.

She quickly e-mailed colleagues “to say there was a really, really, really small chance I’d miss the flight, and a really, really, really, really small chance I wouldn’t be coming to the conference.” But after further questioning that day, the judge advised her, “Ms. Stringer, today’s not the day to get on an airplane.”

Starting March 1, Stringer and the other jurors gathered each morning at 8:30 in a private, off-site location to board a police-escorted coach, skirting the media, before spending a full day on the ninth and 10th floors of the Art Deco courthouse downtown.

The testimony could be emotionally wrenching, especially when jurors learned of the lives of de Abreu and Furtado and heard from people who responded to the crime scene, introducing graphic images into evidence.

During breaks, sequestered in the jury rooms, Stringer tried to make work calls and answer e-mails to avoid falling behind on projects. She also grew close to many fellow jurors, a racially diverse and generation-spanning group sharing an intense, disruptive experience.

Stringer credited Judge Locke for his courtroom manner and his clear instructions, and the court officers for their sensitive handling of the jurors. She learned that she would be the forewoman only after closing statements, when Locke, noting her careful attention — Stringer had filled six notebooks during the trial — charged her with facilitating deliberations and communicating with the judge and court, as a “first among equals.”

While being cautious not to share aspects of the deliberations that the jurors agreed to keep private, Stringer said they wrestled with the burden of proof and with credibility of witnesses, including Alexander Bradley, whose three-plus days on the stand formed a fraught, frequently riveting center to the trial. Stringer said she felt empathy for Bradley as a victim himself, of a 2013 shooting. But the jury struggled with whether the 2012 murders happened the way Bradley described and prosecutors contended.

Bradley, Hernandez’s marijuana supplier as well as a convicted felon, received immunity in exchange for testifying for the prosecution. He claimed that he had watched Hernandez shoot the victims, hours after one of the men allegedly disrespected Hernandez in a nightclub.

The defense attacked Bradley as a “three-legged pony” ridden by prosecutors blinded by the allure of a celebrity conviction, reminding jurors of Bradley’s immunity deal and that his description of how Hernandez discarded the murder weapon did not fit neatly with its discovery. Bradley also once texted his lawyer fretting that he would be charged with perjury if he told “the truth” in a related case.

“Then and now, it’s very difficult to sort through what the actual truth is of the matter,” Stringer said. “I’m a person who might be really naive, but I really wanted to believe that every person coming through that courtroom as a witness was telling the truth. . . . And I don’t think that was the case for several witnesses. But I’ll never know.”

Though jurors took issue with the prosecution’s case, that did not mean they were fans of the defense. Stringer blanched at Hernandez’s lawyers efforts to suggest that aspects of the two victims’ lives might have given others a motive to kill them. “It seemed like whatever you could throw against the wall, whether it be true or not or absurd, was done, implying that the two murder victims were involved in drug dealing, in gangs,” she said. “I know they have a job to do as the defense, but it didn’t sit well.”

After delivering the verdict, the jurors, wanting to decompress and anxious about media attention, gathered discreetly in a restaurant as a group, some already receiving calls from reporters, or texts from family about TV trucks waiting at home. Only in the aftermath, when they could finally speak to each other freely, did Stringer learn that several of the jurors, like her, had been unaware of the Odin Lloyd case.

A religious Christian, Stringer could not help but note that the trial began on Ash Wednesday and ended on Good Friday. But she spent a subdued Easter weekend, and has struggled to find deeper meaning in the trial and the deaths of de Abreu, Furtado, and now Hernandez.

“I don’t know why, in the big picture, I was on this trial,” she said. But “I don’t think this is something that will leave me, ever.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at eric.moskowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.