Though he was convicted of Odin Lloyd’s murder in 2015 and sentenced to life in prison, Aaron Hernandez may technically become an innocent man in his death, thanks to a legal principle called “abatement ab initio.”
In Massachusetts, upon a person’s death, if they have not exhausted their legal appeals, their case reverts to its status at the beginning — it’s as if the trial and conviction never happened.
And it has brought to the forefront an interesting question: Does the legal technicality entitle Hernandez to recover any or all of the $5.91 million that was previously guaranteed in his contract but the Patriots withheld after his arrest?
This is an unprecedented situation, as Hernandez is the first player in NFL history to be convicted of first-degree murder during his playing days, and also the first player to die under these circumstances.
But the likely answer is simple: No, he is not. Even without a conviction on the books, Hernandez almost certainly was in breach of his contract.
And it’s a moot point, anyway. NFL Players Association records show that the Patriots and Hernandez settled a grievance that Hernandez filed in 2014. The settlement gave the Patriots a salary cap credit of $1.184 million, indicating a Patriots win. Additionally, according to Joel Corry — an attorney, salary cap expert, and former NFL agent — grievance settlements almost always tie up all loose ends.
“Typically when there’s a settlement, there’s some sort of catch-all language: ‘This will resolve all claims known or which could be known in the future,’ ” Corry said. “I haven’t seen too many settlements which don’t have some type of form of that kind of language.”
However, Hernandez will be able to draw an NFL pension. Article 53.6 of the CBA states that for players who began their careers before 2012, only three credited seasons are necessary to be vested in the league’s retirement plan (now it’s five years). Hernandez played three seasons before his arrest, so he will be eligible for the minimum pension payments. It is unclear whom Hernandez named as his beneficiary in case of death.
Hernandez collected about $10 million of a five-year, $39.768 million contract he signed in August 2012, about a month after the deaths of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado in Boston and less than a year before Hernandez killed Lloyd.
When Hernandez was arrested for Lloyd’s murder in June 2013, the Patriots released him and refused to pay the remaining guaranteed money — a $3.25 million deferred signing bonus payment, and base salaries of $1.323 million and $1.137 million. They also declined to pay a $82,000 workout bonus that he had earned in June 2013.
Hernandez lost his grievance, and his contract would likely prevent him from collecting any of the money now, despite the lack of a conviction on his record. According to Paragraph 35 (c) of Hernandez’s contract, which was obtained by the Globe, “Player represents and warrants to the Club that . . . no circumstances exist that would prevent Player’s continuing availability to the Club for the duration of the Contract.” Article 4.9 (a) of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement also states that “any player who . . . is unavailable to the team due to conduct by him that results in his incarceration . . . may be required to forfeit signing bonus . . . for each League Year in which a Forfeitable Breach occurs.”
Even though Hernandez was found not guilty of the 2012 double murder, the Patriots can reasonably argue that Hernandez didn’t represent his reckless behavior during that time, and that when he signed the contract he was headed down the path of incarceration and unavailability.
“Just because he’s legally not guilty doesn’t mean that he didn’t actually do anything,” Corry said. “Maybe he didn’t do the murder, but was he an accessory? He was going to end up standing trial anyway, which would have triggered this stuff. And given how much he was going off the rails, who’s to say he wouldn’t have done something between Lloyd and now where he would have imploded?”
The Patriots weren’t able to release Hernandez without any implications. In 2013 they ultimately took a $2.55 million salary cap hit, and $7.5 million in 2014, to account for the remaining portions of Hernandez’s signing bonus. Hernandez officially came off the books in the 2015 season.
But the grievance settlement should end any talk of Hernandez’s team being able to collect any more money.
“I just think this is much ado about nothing, because of the settlement of the grievance,” Corry said.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin