A woman was excused Friday from jury service in the double murder trial of former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez after admitting that she wrote she “can’t believe he killed those people” on her jury questionnaire.
“I can’t believe he would do something like that,” the woman said Friday in a soft voice in Suffolk Superior Court, while Hernandez sat just a few feet away at the same conference table.
The woman also said she lives near the scene of the double murder Hernandez is accused of committing in Boston’s South End.
When Judge Jeffrey Locke asked the woman if she felt her proximity to the crime scene might affect her judgment, she said that it would. Locke quickly excused her, but two other people were chosen for the jury Friday, bringing the number of jurors to 14. Sixteen jurors will be selected, with four designated as alternates before deliberations begin.
Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder in the drive-by shootings of Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu in the early-morning hours of July 16, 2012.
He is already serving a life sentence for the June, 2013 fatal shooting of Odin Lloyd, 27, of Dorchester. The state’s highest court will review his first-degree murder conviction in that case at a later date.
The Lloyd trial loomed all week over jury selection, with a number of prospective jurors saying they were aware of the prior case. Locke excused many of them, but some were chosen for the jury after assuring that they could disregard the previous conviction and judge the pending indictment solely on the evidence admitted at trial.
Defense attorney Jose Baez, a flashy litigator whose prior clients include Casey Anthony, the Florida woman acquitted of murdering her toddler, used rhetorical flourishes throughout the week as he pressed jurors on whether they could judge Hernandez fairly.
Speaking with his hand raised above his head, Baez leaned forward and told juror after juror that guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is “the highest standard [of proof] in American jurisprudence.”
“As he sits here, Mr. Hernandez is presumed innocent,” Baez said repeatedly. “He’s cloaked in that. Can you sit here today and look at us and say that you will grant him that presumption of innocence?”
The jurors who were selected all answered in the affirmative. But the most dramatic response came Thursday from a juror who was ultimately excused.
He locked eyes with Hernandez when Baez asked if he could afford him the presumption of innocence, and a heavy silence hung in the room as lawyers on both sides awaited his response.
“Yes,” the man said finally.
“Is there some hesitation?” Baez asked.
“I just like to think of everything,” the man said. “Why would I presume him guilty? I’m looking right at him, straight in his face. . . . I don’t know the man.”
Prosecutors later excused the juror with one of their peremptory challenges, after citing his criminal record, which included decades-old arrests for attempted murder and armed robbery.
One of the jurors selected Friday is a native of Uzbekistan who said during questioning that he roots for the New York Giants.
“You’re very brave to say that,” Locke told the man, prompting laughter from Hernandez and his attorneys.
The Giants defeated the Patriots in two Super Bowls, and Hernandez scored a touchdown in one of the losing efforts.
The second juror selected Friday said she was previously arrested for shoplifting in Suffolk County and served six months probation. She said she had just arrived in the United States at the time of the incident.
Prosecutor Mark Lee asked if she felt she was treated fairly in court, and she said, “Sure.”
She then exited the room so lawyers on both sides could deliberate, and a prosecutor informed Locke that the woman had a male relative with an open warrant for unarmed robbery. After some discussion, she was seated on the jury.
Hernandez maintained an affable bearing throughout the week of jury selection, laughing and joking with his lawyers and the court officers during breaks. His demeanor did not go unnoticed by prosecutors, who kidded defense attorney George Leontire on Friday about Hernandez’s penchant for hugging his lawyers when he entered the courtroom.
The day before, Leontire had returned from a brief recess with a cookie for Hernandez. The convicted killer cordially patted Leontire on the back as he enjoyed the late-morning snack.
Jury selection is scheduled to resume on Monday, and a pretrial motion hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. Opening statements in the trial are scheduled for Wednesday.