BOSTON — A legal principle that erased former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez’s murder conviction after he killed himself in prison is outdated, unfair and should not stand, a Massachusetts prosecutor told the state’s highest court Thursday.
Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn III said it doesn’t make sense the former New England Patriots tight end is now innocent in the eyes of the law just because he died before his appeal could be heard. Quinn is urging the court to reinstate Hernandez’s conviction and do away with the legal principle for future cases.
“He goes through a full trial, a jury who speaks for the public convicts him and because he dies, in this case commits suicide, the whole thing is wiped out like it never happened? It’s not fair or just and should be changed,” Quinn told reporters after the hearing.
Hernandez was found guilty in 2015 of killing semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd. Two years later, the 27-year-old was found dead in his prison cell days after being acquitted of most charges in a separate double-murder case.
A judge threw out Hernandez’s conviction last year, citing the legal principle that holds that a defendant convicted at trial who dies before an appeal is heard should no longer be considered guilty in the eyes of the law, thereby returning the case to its pretrial status.
Legal experts say the doctrine, rooted in centuries of English law, requires a conviction not be considered final until an appeal can determine whether mistakes were made that deprived the defendant of a fair trial.
John Thompson, Hernandez’s appellate attorney, told the Supreme Judicial Court there’s nothing wrong with the doctrine and the alternatives floated by Quinn are problematic.
“The jury’s decision is not the end-all be-all,” Thompson said. “It is an opinion arrived at by 12 people followed by a process that is subject to defect.”
The Supreme Judicial Court typically takes several months to issue a decision.
How other states handle cases such as Hernandez’s varies widely. Some states like Massachusetts toss the convictions while others dismiss the defendant’s appeal and the conviction stands. Other states allow appellate courts to consider a dead defendant’s case, prosecutors say.
Quinn wants court to allow a defendant’s estate to pursue an appeal, if they wish, otherwise the verdict would stand.
Several justices seemed interested in an approach crafted by the Alabama Supreme Court, which directed the state to simply note in the court record the conviction was neither affirmed nor reversed because the defendant died while the appeal was pending.
But others seemed puzzled over what to do.
“I’m struggling with this because we don’t have any good options,” said Ralph Gants, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Quinn pointed to other high-profile Massachusetts criminals who had their convictions erased after their death, including John Salvi, who was convicted of killing two abortion clinic workers and wounding five other people during a shooting rampage in Brookline in 1994.
Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan, a key figure in the clergy sex abuse scandal that rocked the Boston archdiocese and spread across the globe, also had his child molestation conviction vacated after he was beaten to death in 2003 in his cell at the same Massachusetts maximum-security prison where Hernandez died.