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SJC considers whether Aaron Hernandez murder conviction should be reinstated

Aaron Hernandez.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Pool
Aaron Hernandez.

Even after his suicide, Aaron J. Hernandez will be part of a court battle over the homicide of Odin L. Lloyd in North Attleborough in 2013, one that will determine whether he will forever be known as a murderer — or as an innocent man.

The state’s highest court on Thursday will, for the first time in years, start its review of a long-standing legal concept that wipes out any conviction — including for first-degree murderers like Hernandez — if they die before their trial is reviewed by an appellate court.

The issue was last raised in 2016 when Plymouth prosecutors wanted the murder conviction of Brockton white supremacist Keith Luke — who also killed himself — kept in place. The justices of the Supreme Judicial Court refused to change the rules, issuing a brief order that was the legal equivalent of “nothing new to see here.”

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But now the SJC has five justices appointed by Governor Charlie Baker, three of whom are former Superior Court judges who presided at first-degree murder trials themselves, and one, Justice Frank M. Gaziano, who was on the bench for the Keith Luke trial and part of the federal prosecution that pursued the death penalty for Gary Lee Sampson.

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Hernandez’s suicide on April 19, 2017, came five days after he was acquitted of murdering two men in Boston’s South End in 2012. Hernandez was found hanged inside his cell at the state’s maximum security prison in Shirley. Hernandez had been previously convicted of murdering Lloyd.

Attorney General Maura Healey has joined in support of Bristol District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III who wants Hernandez to remain convicted for murdering Lloyd, a Dorchester man who was once friendly with the former New England Patriots star.

“The current practice…does not consider the interest of the other parties who have an interest in the outcome,’’ said Quinn, who will argue the case himself before the SJC. He points to the impact on relatives of the victims, citizens who sat on juries, and the public as a whole.

Healey threw out several ideas that have been advanced in other states, including having Hernandez’s estate take on the task of pushing forward with the dead man’s appeal, an idea embraced by some state high courts.

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But Hernandez attorney George Leontire said the estate of the one-time millionaire does not have the financial resources to take on the cost of an appeal. Moreover, he doesn’t see the need for anyone in the Hernandez camp to participate in a criminal case involving a dead relative.

“He got a death sentence when he went into prison. He did it by his own hand, I acknowledge that,’’ Leontire said, referring to Hernandez’s 2017 suicide in state prison. “Isn’t it enough? We have to punish him beyond death? I just don’t get this. Haven’t we punished him enough?”

Leontire is not representing Hernandez before the SJC, which will hold a hearing on Thursday. The court-appointed appellate attorney for Hernandez, John M. Thompson, wrote in court papers that the SJC should not disturb existing law.

Suffolk Law Univeristy professor Rosanna Cavallaro, who studied the issue, which is known by the Latin phrase “ab initio,” said Hernandez’s notoriety is no reason to change the rules. Morever, she said, the criminal justice system is focused on the individual offender not the victims, not their relatives, or the people who sat on a jury.

“Criminal punishment is really about the state and the person,’’ she said. “It’s about the state taking the person and depriving them of their liberty because of something they have done. “

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Since Hernandez is dead, there is nothing government can do against him. And the fact that he killed himself should also be taken into account, she said. “A voluntary act of self-destruction should not count as a legal waiver of rights,’’ she said. “That’s just not what suicide is.”

The SJC is likely to issue a ruling later this year.

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