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Outburst in Bella Bond trial shows ‘stakes are high’

Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro argued with Judge Janet Sanders.
Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro argued with Judge Janet Sanders.(Chris Christo/POOL)

The jurors who would eventually acquit former New England Patriots star Aaron J. Hernandez were already into their second day of deliberations when Suffolk Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke and one of Hernandez’s lawyers got into a heated argument.

“I find it astounding that you would make that claim,” Locke told Ronald Sullivan, a Harvard Law School professor and part of Hernandez’s defense team. The judge said the defense was attacking “the integrity of the tribunal.”

Sullivan countered that his complaint was not that he believed Locke was exhibiting racial bias by choosing a white woman as foreperson, but because he felt that all 12 jurors should be given consideration for what could be a highly influential role in closed-door talks.

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The spat between Locke and Sullivan in April foreshadowed the disagreement that broke out Tuesday in Suffolk Superior Court between defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro and Superior Court Judge Janet L. Sanders, who is presiding over the first-degree murder trial of Michael P. McCarthy, accused of killing 2-year-old Bella Bond.

“I’m beside myself,” Shapiro told Sanders. “You’re screwing up my whole case!”

Sanders replied: “I disagree entirely.”

Shapiro: “I’m sure you do. There is not much you’ve agreed with me on this whole damn trial.”

Rosanna Cavallaro, a Suffolk Law School professor who has followed both cases, said Wednesday that the outburst between Shapiro and Sanders is out of the ordinary, but not all that surprising given the length of the trial, the intensity of public attention — and the life sentence McCarthy faces if convicted.

“The stakes are very high and it’s a pressure cooker,’’ Cavallaro said. She called Shapiro “a first-rate defense attorney” who did not “cross any line” during his exchange with Sanders.

Cavallaro said the exchange was not common, but understandable, especially for defense attorneys who are legally — and morally — obligated to represent their clients as ferociously as possible. But, she added, some restraint should remain.

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“I think you want someone to be a zealous advocate, to push it to the limit and make as strong as possible argument that the law permits — while also keeping their emotions disengaged,’’ she said. “It’s hard. It’s hard for people to do.”

Cavallaro said the McCarthy trial creates unique challenges to defense, prosecution and the judge, given that the two people at the center of the case — McCarthy and Rachelle Bond — once were boyfriend and girlfriend but now find themselves accusing each other (Bond directly and McCarthy through his lawyer) of a horrendous crime, the murder of an innocent toddler.

“All of these things just kind of turn up the heat on the people involved,’’ Cavallaro said, adding that the confrontation in Courtroom 906 is the stuff Hollywood dramas are made of. “All of the courtroom dramas that we love, there is a moment in there when the person gets a little animated ... when a lawyer is feeling so passionate about the rightness of their case they are engaged emotionally as a person not just as a lawyer.”

George Leontire, who was also part of Hernandez’s defense team, said Wednesday that there were numerous occasions during the high-profile trial where spats broke out with Locke.

“The defense team went head to head with Judge Locke on numerous occasions,’’ Leontire said. “And given the severity of the case, we felt it was necessary to confront the court.”

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Hernandez was acquitted this year of two counts of first-degree murder. But days later, he committed suicide in his state prison cell, where he was serving a life sentence for his previous conviction in the murder of Odin L Lloyd in 2013.


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.