By Wesley Lowery
FALL RIVER — Wearing his now-familiar blue blazer and white-collared shirt, former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez appeared in court Friday and firmly spoke his first words to the public since he was arrested in June and charged with murder.
Six times he called out, "not guilty."
Hernandez's not guilty pleas to first-degree murder and five weapons charges in the killing of Odin Lloyd of Dorchester came at a brief arraignment in Bristol County Superior Court, during which defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed to postpone a bail hearing.
The 15-minute hearing — which offered no new clues on the evidence prosecutors have amassed or how the defense will proceed — sharply contrasted with the swirl of excitement leading up to it.
Court officials distributed strict court proceeding rules beforehand, limiting the number of media members allowed in the courtroom to two dozen, which prompted reporters and photographers to spend hours in line as they waited for a chance to get one of those spots.
The arraignment began in the early afternoon, with Lloyd's family members dressed in his favorite color purple seated in a row near the front of the courtroom, not far from Hernandez's mother, who sobbed during her first court appearance in support of her son.
Several Hernandez fans and supporters, wearing his jersey and custom-made T-shirts, sat in the courtroom rows reserved for the public, while a handful of others stood outside.
The unexpected agreement by the legal teams to put off the bail hearing halted any further disclosure of the evidence that prosecutors say implicates the Bristol, Conn., native in the June 17 killing of Lloyd in a North Attleborough industrial park. Prosecutors later said they hope to begin the Hernandez trial next spring, nearly a year after Lloyd was slain.
Defense attorneys are expected to seek bail at Hernandez's next court appearance, a pretrial hearing Oct. 9, while prosecutors have vowed to argue that the former NFL star remain in prison.
"We want to see Mr. Hernandez held without bail," Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter said following the arraignment. "Without any doubt."
Prosecutors have said Hernandez orchestrated Lloyd's killing. Video surveillance footage, they said, shows the former tight end picking Lloyd up at his home, pulling into an industrial park just a quarter-mile from Hernandez's home, and then minutes later driving out of the industrial park without Lloyd.
Two other men believed to have been in the car when Lloyd was killed — Ernest Wallace, 41, of Maramar, Fla., and Carlos Ortiz, of Bristol, Conn. — are being held in Massachusetts jails on charges related to Lloyd's killing.
Hernandez's defense team has routinely taken the microphone following his court appearances to decry media reports and discredit the strength of the prosecution's case. Friday was no exception.
"We're confident that at the end of the trial Aaron will be exonerated,'' said Charles Rankin, a member of the defense team, speaking briefly to reporters after the hearing. "Not one shred of evidence has been presented yet, and we feel confident that, when evidence is presented in a court of law, that Aaron will be exonerated."
That confidence was reiterated by Hernandez supporters both in the courtroom and outside. A 21-year-old from New Bedford wore a now discontinued red Hernandez Patriots jersey with the number 81 on it. Another local man sat in the courtroom wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Free AH 81."
"It felt like somebody needed to support him,'' said Danielle Kelley, 37, dressed in a black and white Hernandez jersey, who traveled to Fall River from her home in of Savannah, Ga., for the hearing.
Kelley said she had launched social media accounts in support of Hernandez after he was arrested and believes he has not been portrayed fairly in the media.
"I don't think he's guilty of killing anybody," she said.
Building sympathy like that will be crucial for the defense team to prevent prosecutors from proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Hernandez is guilty of killing Lloyd, said Andrew Flier, a former Los Angeles district attorney who now works as a defense attorney and has represented multiple celebrities charged with high-profile crimes.
Celebrity cases pose a special challenge to defense lawyers, who have to contend with the extreme scrutiny of the evidence, their client, and themselves, that comes with any high-profile defendant.
Flier said the defense, despite their declarations to the contrary, faces a mountain of evidence tying Hernandez to the crime.
On top of that, the current grand jury investigation into whether Hernandez was the shooter in an unsolved July 2012 double murder in Boston will complicate any attempts by the defense at proving Hernandez's good character.