On Friday, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arraigned in Bristol County, Mass., for the shooting death of 27-year old Odin Lloyd.
Hernandez answered “not guilty’’ six times in a firm voice as he was arraigned on first-degree murder and weapons charges.
The trial will now be more than a year away from now. And then, if we may be so cavalier as to fill in the rest of the story: The trial will take place, the ink from Hernandez’s name will dirty the fingers of tabloid readers across the nation, and eventually, it will appear next to a phrase that has become as associated with high-profile athletes as any other in American sports: “NOT GUILTY.”
At that point the story of Aaron Hernandez, a story which almost certainly includes more than one act of cold-blooded murder, will be handed off from the legal system to a waiting network of PR operatives and sports agents. The ballet will continue with conciliatory interviews, Skip Bayless’s histrionics, and eventually, an NFL playing field. We can be sure that whatever uniform Hernandez finally pulls over his pads will be that of a team lauded in the sports media for “taking a chance on the young man.” And the next freakishly talented, highly scouted, entirely out-of-control 16-year old boy will take note of the only civics lesson he’ll ever heed.
Many famous athletes have been counted among the “10 guilty persons” allowed to walk free according to Blackstone’s Formulation, the philosophical basis of our legal system’s presumption of “innocent until proven guilty.” O.J. Simpson is the readiest comparison to Hernandez’s case, wherein an almost-certainly guilty suspect was charged with murder without a credible eyewitness. (In Hernandez’s case they are his fellow suspects; in Simpson’s it was his dog.) Most of the time, however, athletes’ acquittals have more to do with influence and money. Cleveland Browns receiver Donté Stallworth killed a man while driving drunk in 2009; he later settled with the victim’s family out of court for an undisclosed sum and avoided a heftier sentence before returning to the NFL. This would not have been an option for a suspect of average means. The same exclusivity can be said for the protection afforded to the Notre Dame football players accused of rape. Though amateur athletes, they nonetheless had an institutional cachet that shielded them from justice.
New England’s $40 million man certainly has this benefit. According to the website of Hernandez’s high-powered defense attorney James Sultan, “some of his most recent successes include appellate reversals of first degree murder convictions.” Counsel must have been happy to give their client the good news: he stands a good chance of walking free.
The high profile of this case may work in two ways. On the one hand, Hernandez has resources. He can not only defend himself with high-powered representation, he can also afford an expensive attorney for his murder accomplice Ernest Wallace, thereby insuring corroborating testimony against the third man, Carlos Ortiz. There is ample evidence implicating Hernandez, but there is still no other eyewitness to Lloyd’s death besides those two men. With Ortiz turning state’s evidence and Wallace bought and paid-for, no one is really credible. The state has yet to find the murder weapon and they have no clear motive (the best we’ve heard comes from the Rolling Stone article alleging that he was just “twisted on dust”). The standard of proof is probably going to be insurmountable.
But it wouldn’t necessarily be if the charge was not first-degree murder, and here we see the other effect of having a high-profile criminal charge, one that tends to work in favor of the accused. District attorneys seem to take every chance to show the nation just what a desperate, fame-hungry breed they are. With one sign of famous blood in the water, DA’s inexplicably err on the side of overcharging, so that convictable crimes are surpassed by the bar the prosecution sets itself. This seems to happen to athletes about as often as they are preferentially treated: recall the Duke lacrosse fiasco, out of which a politicking prosecutor attempted to turn a false allegation into a ticket to higher office. Or the rape charge levied against Kobe Bryant in similar circumstances. Or the mother of all opportunistic prosecutions, the miserably-made murder case against Ray Lewis. For whatever reason, state’s attorneys tend to lose the ball in the lights, so to speak.
If Aaron Hernandez does walk free from this crime that he most likely committed (and for which he was inarguably responsible) there’s no reason that he won’t be picked up by another NFL team – perhaps even New England. Troubling personality traits have trailed Hernandez his entire life, and the famously automatous Patriots coach Bill Belichick still took a chance on him. It might be morally questionable to pay millions of dollars to a murderer, a man who would almost certainly be convicted if represented by the ineffective type of public defender many murder suspects get. But Belichick understands the nature of the industry he’s in: the only result that validates him is putting together what he needs to win. That insight seems to have eluded the prosecutors in Bristol County.