One crucial detail of the murder case against Aaron Hernandez was never in dispute: Hernandez, a 25-year-old former tight end for the New England Patriots, was at the industrial yard in North Attleborough on June 17, 2013, when 27-year-old Odin L. Lloyd was fatally shot five times.
But his presence was not enough to secure a murder conviction under Massachusetts law, which complicated the job of the jury weighing his case.
To prove that Hernandez is guilty of murder, prosecutors had to convince jurors that Hernandez intended for Lloyd to be killed and either pulled the trigger himself or helped someone else commit the crime.
With no eyewitnesses in the case to make those claims, the jury was, in a way, being asked to get inside Hernandez’s head, according to legal specialists interviewed before the verdict.
Because the case was largely circumstantial, prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred over surveillance footage, DNA evidence, and the testimony of more than 130 witnesses.
Here are the strongest points made by the prosecution and the defense during the trial:
1. Surveillance footage.
The video taken from Hernandez’s North Attleborough home was crucial to prosecutors. It not only showed Hernandez holding what looked like a firearm minutes after the shooting, it also showed him looking relaxed in his basement with his alleged accomplices, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, several hours after the killing.
Those images cut against the defense theory that Hernandez was a frightened witness to the unexpected killing of Lloyd by either Ortiz or Wallace, said Kevin Reddington, a criminal defense attorney who often tries cases in Bristol County.
“The man hugs, handing his infant daughter off to [Wallace and Ortiz], that’s powerful evidence that goes against” the defense theory, Reddington said.
2. A defense admission that Hernandez was at the crime scene.
The prosecution wanted the jury to believe Hernandez was part of a joint venture to kill Lloyd — that Hernandez acted with Ortiz and Wallace to commit a murder. When the defense acknowledged there was enough evidence to place Hernandez at the crime scene, it may have made it easier for the jury to believe he acted with others to kill Lloyd, said Michael Doolin, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.
“It lends credence to the government’s argument that he’s there, he’s there with his friends, he’s covering up afterward,” Doolin said. “Therefore he’s involved in the joint venture.”
(But this could cut both ways; see Defense No. 2.)
3. The testimony of Shayanna Jenkins .
Hernandez’s fiancée told jurors that he asked her to remove a box from the house and give Wallace money to flee from Massachusetts. That suggests he had something to hide, Doolin said. It also helped the prosecutors’ case that Jenkins was evasive at times. “That ties her into Hernandez in a bad way,” Doolin said. “It tells the jury she’s trying to cover for him in some way.”
4. Hernandez’s personal behavior.
At many points during the trial, the prosecution presented witnesses who testified to less-than-savory character traits in the former NFL star. They showed he cheated on his fiancée, drove drunk, and hit on the baby-sitter. They repeatedly presented a bar receipt showing he tipped a waitress a little more than 10 percent of the bill. Jurors also learned that Hernandez lied when he told a cancer-stricken cousin that he had set up a trust fund for her sons. Jurors must make a decision strictly on the evidence, Doolin said. But if a defendant seems to have an unsympathetic personality, jurors might feel less reluctant to convict.
“Human nature being what it is, if someone comes across as a nice guy, they’ll give him the benefit of the doubt,” Doolin said. “If someone comes off as cheap or gruff or egotistical or manipulative, they would certainly take that into consideration, I believe.”
1. Lack of motive.
There was no solid evidence that Hernandez had negative feelings toward the man he is accused of killing. This could have helped the defense, even though the prosecution does not need to show a motive to prove murder.
“If a jury is going to find someone guilty of our most serious crime, murder, they’re going to want to have some motivation of why the defendant would have done that,” Doolin said. “If there is no motive, and the defense has painted a picture of Hernandez and Lloyd as being friendly, the jury would be left to think ‘why would Hernandez have done this?’ ”
2. The admission that Hernandez was at the crime scene.
Surprisingly, what helped the prosecution might have also helped the defense, Doolin said. The admission gave the defense credibility with the jury and could help jurors consider alternative defense theories about what might have happened at that industrial yard.
“It makes the jury more likely to believe their other arguments and shows that they’re not living in a fantasy world,” Doolin said. The jury is more likely to consider that Hernandez was there, but “he didn’t participate,” Doolin said.
3. No eyewitnesses.
Much has been made about the fact that police never found the Glock .45 that prosecutors said was used to kill Lloyd — clearly a plus for the defense. But Reddington said the lack of eyewitnesses is even more helpful to the defense. “I’ve seen acquittals in cases where there was a gun and convictions in cases where there was no gun,” he said. The fact that no one could tell jurors what happened at that industrial yard underscores the circumstantial nature of the case.
Jurors “don’t like circumstantial cases,” Reddington said. “If you’re going to put someone in jail for the rest of their life, you want to make. . . sure of your decision.”
4. Skillful cross-examination.
Defense attorneys aggressively questioned forensic analysts and police witnesses in the case, undercutting investigative efforts and raising questions about why authorities did not test Wallace’s DNA. “I think that the jury would be concerned about failures to investigate” other avenues, Reddington said. “I wouldn’t say [police] were reckless, negligent or sloppy,” but the defense was effective at finding vulnerabilities in the investigation and exploiting them, he said.
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.