The judge presiding over the murder trial of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has granted immunity to his fiancee, but it remains unclear whether Shayanna Jenkins will incriminate the once-promising football star, legal specialists said.
Bristol Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh on Tuesday approved prosecutors' sealed request to grant immunity to Jenkins, 25, Hernandez's fiancee and the mother of his daughter, but authorities did not say what, if anything, Jenkins has agreed to tell prosecutors if she is called to the stand.
Neither a spokesman for District Attorney Thomas Quinn's office nor Jenkins's lawyer could be reached for comment Tuesday.
Hernandez, 25, has pleaded not guilty to murder and weapons charges in the June 2013 slaying of Odin L. Lloyd, 27, of Dorchester, whose bullet-riddled body was found in an industrial park near the athlete's North Attleborough home.
Jenkins faces a perjury charge for allegedly lying to a grand jury about her actions and conversations with Hernandez shortly after the Lloyd's death. Prosecutors allege that she discarded a box, believed to contain the murder weapon, at Hernandez's request.
Last month, prosecutors met privately with Jenkins and her lawyers for what a court clerk called an "immunity hearing." Prosecutors asked Garsh to grant Jenkins immunity on Jan. 7.
But Tuesday's development does not necessarily mean that Jenkins, who has been sitting with Hernandez's family during the trial and has exchanged tender glances and whispered messages with Hernandez during breaks, has decided to cooperate with the government, legal specialists said.
Rather, prosecutors could be trying to compel her testimony by granting her immunity, so she cannot assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Jenkins had initially invoked the Fifth Amendment in August 2013 when she appeared before the grand jury, but was granted immunity for her testimony at that time before allegedly lying more than two-dozen times to the panel. She has pleaded not guilty to the perjury charge.
"She now has one of two choices, testify or go to jail for contempt" for refusing to do so, said Martin G. Weinberg, a prominent Boston defense lawyer. "Whether they expect the same testimony and just want to put the fiancee in front of the jury, and have the jury perhaps question her memory and whether she's testifying truthfully, is one strategy I've seen. And another one is to ask harder questions and get better answers. . . . It puts this woman in a very difficult position."
Because the immunity agreement is sealed, it is not known whether prosecutors have agreed to drop the perjury charge against Jenkins in exchange for her testimony. However, the government may be unable to pursue the perjury charge if Jenkins testifies that she lied to the grand jury but is telling the truth now.
"If she gets an order from the judge granting immunity, not only can what she says on the stand not be used against her, you can't prosecute her for any act, transaction, or event that she describes," on the stand, said John Amabile, a Brockton defense lawyer.
Hernandez has been held without bail since his arrest, while Jenkins remains free on personal recognizance. Their interactions at trial suggest they remain close.
They are not allowed to touch in court, but when Hernandez enters the courtroom, he almost always looks for Jenkins, who is typically seated in the front row reserved for his family. Hernandez has mouthed "I love you" to Jenkins, who says it back. During one recent day of testimony, when the jury was out of the courtroom, Hernandez looked back at Jenkins and smiled, mouthing something unintelligible that made her giggle.
When Jenkins's younger sister, Shaneah, a prosecution witness and Lloyd's girlfriend, testified during the first week of trial testimony, Jenkins busily scribbled in a notepad. She later shared those notes with one of Hernandez's lawyers.
Prosecutors have said that Shayanna Jenkins, after receiving a call from Hernandez on the day after Lloyd's death, removed a box from their basement and tossed it into a dumpster, and later falsely told the grand jury she could not recall where she discarded the box.
One of Hernandez's alleged accomplices, Carlos Ortiz, told investigators shortly after the murder that Hernandez stored guns in a box in the basement, according to court records. The weapon used to kill Lloyd has not been found.
Ortiz and another man, Ernest Wallace, are also charged with murder in Lloyd's killing and will be tried separately.
Testimony is scheduled to resume in Hernandez's trial on Wednesday.