This post was originally published on 2/19/2015. It was last updated on 4/9/2015.
Almost two weeks into the Aaron Hernandez murder trial, the prosecutor’s case has begun to take shape as they have painted the former Patriot not as an all-pro tight end, but a brutal killer.
Prosecutors allege that in the early morning hours of June 17, 2013 Hernandez drove his rented Nissan Altima to a secluded industrial park in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, just 15 miles north of Providence, Rhode Island. In the car were Hernandez, two of Hernandez’s associates and Odin Lloyd.
Once they arrived at the industrial park, prosecutors allege that Aaron Hernandez brutally killed Lloyd, shooting him five times with a .45-calliber handgun.
This is the prosecution’s narrative, and they will advance the story slowly with evidence and testimony, piece by piece. Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of that narrative, as well as a glimpse into the potentially dramatic moments ahead.
Strengths of the Prosecution’s Case
While there are weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, the use of circumstantial evidence against Hernandez is not one of them. In murder trials prosecutors will often base their case on circumstantial evidence – as direct evidence simply may not be available.
An example of circumstantial evidence would be fingerprints found at the scene of a crime. While this is not ‘direct evidence’ that someone may have been at a location, a juror can draw an inference that the accused was at location A if his fingerprints were found at location A.
Some of the major circumstantial evidence presented against Hernandez by the prosecution includes:
-A marijuana joint found at the crime scene with Hernandez’s DNA on it
-Rental car keys found on Lloyd’s body that matched a car rented by Hernandez
-A .45-caliber shell casing found in the rental car with Hernandez’s DNA on it and that was fired from the same gun as the shell casings found at the crime scene
-Video evidence (from Hernandez’s home surveillance system) showing Hernandez at 3:30 a.m. near the basement of his home, with what allegedly appears to be a gun
-The recording on Hernandez’s home surveillance system stops 10 minutes later at 3:40 a.m.
-Testimony that a Nissan Altima picked up Lloyd, at his home, just over an hour before Lloyd was killed
-Damage to the side mirror of Hernandez’s rental car
-Soil on the rental car similar to the soil at the crime scene
-The one-mile distance from Hernandez’s home to the crime scene
The prosecution has also put forth strong testimony from Lloyd’s girlfriend Shaneah; who testified on the stand that after learning of Lloyd’s murder, she visited her sister Shayanna in the home she shared with Hernandez.
Once there, Shaneah testified that Shayanna started receiving calls and texts. Then, Shayanna went down to the basement and eventually left the house with a large black garbage bag, telling Shaneah that she had to go to the bank to pay the housekeepers. Approximately 30 minutes later Shayanna returned.
It is here prosecutors will argue that Hernandez told Shayanna to get rid of the murder weapon and that she successfully did.
Weaknesses of the Prosecution’s Case
However, therein lies the problem: where is the murder weapon? The absence of the murder weapon is by far the largest hill to climb for the prosecution, as they must prove Hernandez committed this crime beyond a reasonable doubt. It is here that Hernandez’s defense team will draw their focus.
Further, prosecutors lost some major pre-trial evidentiary motions. Notably, Bristol County Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh, citing the execution of an illegal search warrant by police, tossed out evidence seized by police at an apartment rented by Hernandez in Franklin, Massachusetts and from a Hummer registered to Hernandez.
The evidence includes multiple boxes of .45 caliber ammunition and a glock .45 caliber magazine loaded with, you guessed it, the same ammunition used to kill Lloyd.
Judge Garsh also barred prosecutors from using text messages sent from Lloyd to his sister on the night of his murder, which indicated that Lloyd was with “NFL” (an alleged reference to Hernandez).
Highlights to Come
Finally, with the trial to take an expected six weeks, there is still a lot more to come. Here are some possible highlights:
Will Aaron Hernandez’s fiancé Shayanna testify?
Prosecutors allege that Shayanna lied to a grand jury at least 29 times regarding details of her involvement in the alleged cover-up. Prosecutors have offered Shayanna immunity should she testify; however, indications are that Shayanna is standing by her man.
Will Hernandez take the stand?
Most criminal defense attorneys would tell you no way. While it’s a calculated risk to keep Hernandez off the stand, it would be a high-risk/low-benefit move to put him on it. Having Hernandez on the stand accounting where he was that evening would be a complete disaster. Jurors are instructed not to hold Hernandez’s decision against him should he not testify, but it’s safe to say that jurors still do. Keep in mind, it’s Hernandez’s decision to testify or not at his trial.
Will any big names testify?
Prosecutors provided a list of more than 300 potential witnesses, including: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Buffalo Bills LB Brandon Spikes and Miami Dolphins C Mike Pouncey.
Sorry, but no Tom Brady.
What will happen with the 2012 double homicide?
In May 2014, nine months after Hernandez is indicted in the Lloyd case, Aaron Hernandez is indicted by a Suffolk County Grand Jury in connection with the 2012 murders of Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu that occurred outside a South Boston nightclub.
Hernandez, allegedly driving a Toyota 4Runner with Rhode Island License plates, pulled up next to de Abreu and Furtado and opened fire with a .38-caliber revolver, killing both (and wounding a third man). While the details of the 2012 incident cannot be used as evidence in the Lloyd case, this will only be round one of legal proceedings for Hernandez.
On Tuesday, 12 jurors were taken from a familiar jury box and brought to a cozy Bristol County Superior Court jury room to decide – in addition to a weapons charge – whether Aaron Hernandez is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the June 2013 first degree murder of Odin Lloyd. To answer this question unanimously, the jury will have their hands full.
Together the jury of seven women and five men will pour over ten weeks of trial materials, consisting of testimony from 135 witnesses, more than 400 trial exhibits (including 2,500 pages in phone records), and surveillance videos with running times approaching a full season of the Gilmore Girls. All the while, ringing in their minds will be the closing salvos from both the prosecution and the defense.
Without a murder weapon nor a witness to Lloyd’s shooting, the prosecution’s closing argument had to focus on circumstantial forms of evidence like suspicious surveillance videos at Hernandez’s home, cell tower and phone records and Hernandez’s DNA found at the scene of the crime. The prosecution also pointed to the testimony of the 131 witnesses it called, including Hernandez’s fiancé Shayanna Jenkins in particular.
Shayanna – whose sister Shaneah Jenkins had been dating Lloyd at the time of his death – was compelled to testify after being granted immunity from prosecution for related perjury charges. Shayanna told the Court that Hernandez had instructed her to remove a box from the basement, but Hernandez never told her what was inside and she never looked. Instead, she claims she took it out in a trash bag, found a dumpster 20 minutes away, and got rid of it. Prosecutors contend this mysterious box contained evidence from Lloyd’s murder and more importantly – the gun used by Hernandez.
However, in perhaps the most surprising moment of closing arguments, the defense offered a key admission: Hernandez was present at Lloyd’s murder, but he only witnessed the shooting and that his co-defendants, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, were the ones that actually pulled the trigger. The defense further argued that the prosecution never set forth a motive for why Hernandez killed Lloyd and that police targeted Hernandez due to his celebrity status.
So where will the jury land?
No one can say for certain. While the prosecution is not required to prove an exact motive as to why Hernandez killed Lloyd, the absence of a motive plays very well for Hernandez. Also favoring Hernandez is the absence of eye-witness testimony to the murder – as Ortiz and Wallace are also facing murder charges and therefore, like Hernandez, asserted their Fifth Amendment rights.
But, while no murder weapon was ever found, the involvement of “Shayanna’s trash removal” sheds a great amount of suspicion on Hernandez. And finally, working against Hernandez is his admission he was at the scene of the crime. This was a huge gamble by the defense, but given the physical evidence found at the scene of the crime and its close proximity to where Hernandez was, it was a necessary one.
The question now: will that gamble will pay off?
Once the jury steps out of that cozy room, we will know.
(Featured Image courtesy of Livestream)