Bristol County prosecutors suffered several setbacks in the months leading up to the murder trial of former NFL star Aaron Hernandez. Ammunition that allegedly matched the gun used to kill the victim, Odin Lloyd, was tossed out as evidence. A judge told prosecutors they could not show Lloyd’s texts to his sister — which they said showed he knew he was about to die – to the jury.
But with the trial scheduled to start Friday, a relative of Hernandez has agreed to testify in exchange for immunity and, perhaps more importantly, Hernandez’s fiancée had a confidential meeting with prosecutors, her lawyer, and Bristol prosecutors, suggesting she may incriminate the former New England Patriots tight end.
If the fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, takes the stand, her testimony has the potential to devastate Hernandez’s case, observers say.
Prosecutors have said they believe Jenkins removed evidence of the murder from the couple’s home in North Attleborough and threw it away. The meeting at the Fall River Justice Center on Wednesday, later described by a court clerk as an “immunity hearing,’’ was initially scheduled as a pretrial conference on her own case — she has been charged with lying to the grand jury that charged Hernandez with murder.
“This seems to be a game changer for the Commonwealth,” said Stephen Weymouth, a Boston lawyer following the case. “I thought the evidence against Aaron Hernandez was very strong but I thought because of the great lawyering he has been getting, I thought that things were looking a little bit better for the defense. Now I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore.”
The Wednesday meeting was a last-minute twist in a case that has drawn so much public attention that court officials said it will take almost two weeks to find a jury of 18 people who can be impartial about the case. Jury selection begins Friday — 375 prospective jurors will come to court to fill out confidential questionnaires that will help lawyers determine if they have any biases that should keep them off the jury. More will be called on Monday and Tuesday.
Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges.
But Jenkins’s meeting with prosecutors is not a sure indication she will cooperate, said Martin G. Weinberg, a veteran defense attorney.
“I don’t know that that’s a signal she’s volunteering to be a witness as much as a signal that the prosecution is trying to compel her testimony,” Weinberg said. “You can’t tell by a secret hearing. Time will tell.”
Hernandez, 25, and two other men, Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz, are accused of driving Lloyd to an industrial park in the early morning hours of June 17, 2013. Prosecutors say Llyod was shot multiple times in the chest with a .45-caliber firearm.
According to his death certificate, Lloyd, a 27-year-old semiprofessional football player who was working as a landscaper at the time, was struck in the heart, lungs, liver, and kidney.
Prosecutors have said Hernandez killed Lloyd because the NFL star feared Lloyd knew too much about his criminal activities — including a 2012 double homicide in Boston for which Hernandez has also been charged — but Judge E. Susan Garsh has said there is no compelling evidence that backs up such a motive, which means prosecutors will not be able to present that theory to a jury.
In May, Hernandez was charged with two counts of murder for the Boston killings and has pleaded not guilty. That case is scheduled to go to trial later this year.
Even without a motive, the circumstantial evidence in the Bristol case is strong, legal observers say. Prosecutors have said Lloyd’s sister saw her brother get picked up at his Dorchester house in a Nissan Altima the night of the shooting.
Surveillance footage shows Hernandez at the wheel of the Altima going into the industrial yard in North Attleborough at 3:23 a.m. The car leaves five minutes later.
A witness heard gunshots around that time. Lloyd was found with two sets of keys that belonged to a black Chevy Suburban rented to Hernandez.
Police said they also have footage of Hernandez brandishing a gun in his house the night Lloyd was killed.
But investigators were unable to find the .45 caliber gun used.
And Hernandez’s lawyers, a trio of well-known defense attorneys, slowly stripped prosecutors of what seemed to be powerful evidence. Garsh agreed with the defense that State Police did not have probable cause when they searched Hernandez’s Franklin apartment and found .45-caliber bullets.
Prosecutors had what they said were Lloyd’s last words — texts to his sister sent minutes before his death — that they said showed he knew he was going to be killed and who might do it.
But Hernandez’s defense attorneys successfully argued that nothing in the texts suggested Lloyd felt his life was being threatened.
Minutes before he was shot, Lloyd texted his sister: “U saw who I was with . . . NFL . . . Just so U know.”
Hernandez’s presence at the scene of the crime is not enough to convict him under Massachusetts law, legal observers say.
“The mere fact that he’s in the car and in the area where Lloyd’s body is found is not the smoking gun,” Weymouth said.
Ortiz and Wallace face charges related to the murder, and will be tried separately. Wallace’s lawyer, David Meier, declined to comment on whether prosecutors had offered his client immunity to testify. Ortiz’s lawyer, John Connors, said he has not been in contact with the prosecution.
It is unclear what Hernandez’s cousin, who was granted immunity, according to the court clerk, knows about the events of that night. But Jenkins, who has a young daughter with Hernandez, could be the key to the prosecution’s case, legal observers say. Prosecutors have said they believe Jenkins received a coded text from Hernandez telling her to get rid of evidence a day after Lloyd’s body was found.
They said she went to the basement, removed a box, then put it in a plastic bag covered with baby clothes and drove off in her sister’s car. She later told a grand jury she could not remember where she disposed of the box, according to prosecutors.
Weinberg, who emphasized that he was speaking generally because he does not know what Jenkins would testify about, said a witness with direct knowledge of a crime is crucial.
If convicted on the perjury charge, Jenkins could face up to 20 years in prison. Immunity in exchange for her testimony would guarantee she would not be prosecuted.