FALL RIVER — A Superior Court judge on Tuesday vacated the first-degree murder conviction of former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez in light of his suicide last month, but state prosecutors immediately vowed to fight the decision all the way to the state’s highest court.
In erasing Hernandez’s conviction for the 2013 shooting of Odin L. Lloyd, Superior Court Judge Susan Garsh cited a centuries-old law that states if a defendant dies while the conviction is on direct appeal, it is as if the prosecution never happened.
Hernandez was found hanged inside his cell at the state’s maximum security prison in Shirley on April 19, five days after he was acquitted of two other murders.
In her decision, Garsh dismissed the prosecutor’s argument that the conviction against Hernandez should stand because the former tight end knew his suicide would lead to his conviction being vacated.
“This court cannot know why Hernandez may have chosen to end his life and declines to infer an intent by Hernandez to relinquish his appellate rights or an intent to interfere with the course of justice from his reported suicide, a tragic act that may have complex and myriad causes,” said Garsh, who presided over Hernandez’s trial in the slaying of Lloyd in 2015.
She cited decades of precedent in her decision, which she issued from the bench before a packed courtroom at the Fall River Justice Center. Her ruling came about 20 minutes after lawyers for Hernandez and Bristol prosecutors argued their positions.
The decision shook Lloyd’s loved ones, who wept in the courtroom. Lloyd’s girlfriend, Shaneah Jenkins, walked out of the courtroom, wiping away tears. A lawyer for Lloyd’s family said that he did not think the decision would affect a pending civil suit against Hernandez’s estate.
“In our book, he’s guilty, and he’s going to always be guilty,” Lloyd’s mother, Ursula Ward, told reporters. As her daughter, Olivia, stood by crying, Ward said she would be reunited with her son in heaven. “That’s a victory that I have that I am going to take with me,” she said.
Bristol prosecutors had cited a suicide note Hernandez wrote to his fiancee, Shayannah Jenkins, as proof he knew his suicide would help her financially. “You’re rich,” he wrote to her.
Bristol District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III vowed to appeal.
Hernandez, Quinn said, “reaped the legal benefits” of a “medieval” rule that goes back to the when Massachusetts was still an English colony.
“He died a guilty man and a convicted murderer. This fact is indisputable,” Quinn said. “You can’t just snap your fingers and have that go away.”
Bristol Assistant District Attorney Patrick Bomberg, one of the lead prosecutors during the murder trial, said there was evidence Hernandez knew about the legal principle known as “ab initio,” which is Latin for “from the beginning.” It means that upon a person’s death, their legal case reverts to its status at the beginning — as if the trial and conviction never happened.
“This is not a defendant who has arrived at the killing of himself by happenstance,” Bomberg said.
John Thompson, one of the lawyers who had been handling Hernandez’s appeal at the time of his suicide, said that the Supreme Judicial Court has never left open the question of how the principle should be applied.
“This is an established common law doctrine,” he argued before Garsh. “The manner of death has never been a consideration.”
Hernandez’s lawyers were backed by decades of precedence. Charges against John C. Salvi III, who was convicted of killing two women in a shooting spree at two reproductive clinics in Brookline in 1994, were dismissed following his suicide in his prison cell nine months into his sentence. His appeals had not been exhausted.
The 2014 prison suicide of Keith Luke, who was convicted on charges of murder, rape, and kidnapping, led to the charges being vacated by the SJC in July 2016.
Garsh cited the Luke case in her decision, noting the SJC ruled that “nothing in the Commonwealth’s submission persuades us to change our longstanding practice in these circumstances.”
Legal specialists have speculated that the presumption of his innocence could entitle his family to recover any or all of the $5.91 million that was previously guaranteed in his contract but the Patriots withheld after his arrest in 2013. The Globe has reported, however, that the Hernandez estate would probably not receive any money from the Patriots.
The Department of Correction recently released a trove of documents in which it cited statements from an inmate who said Hernandez told him he had heard a “rumor” about the legal principle.
Thompson dismissed that statement, arguing the credibility of that inmate was questionable.
In her ruling, Garsh said Hernandez’s suicide may have been brought on by any number of factors, including possible “mental disturbance,” concerns about news reports that claimed he was gay, and even religious motives.
Garsh noted that in his letter to Jenkins, Hernandez wrote that “this was the supreme’s, the almighty’s plan, not mine.”
Hernandez’s lawyers have said they question the Department of Correction’s assertion that Hernandez killed himself. A medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, but a team of lawyers for Hernandez’s family said they have launched their own investigation into his death.
Globe correspondent Maddie Kilgannon contributed to this report. Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer. John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com.