Prosecutors in Bristol County, Massachusetts are now asking the court to officially reinstate the murder conviction of Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez was convicted of the June 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, who was dating Hernandez’s fiancee’s sister. Hernandez had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole but was currently appealing the decision. Before the appeal could be heard, he hanged himself in his prison cell. Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Susan Garsh ruled to vacate the murder conviction in May of 2017, saying that there was no way to know what caused Hernandez to hang himself. She further stated that Hernandez’s suicide was an act of tragedy whose causes would remain unknown to the court.
According to a little-used law that remains on Massachusetts’ books called “abatement ab initio,” if a person dies while they are waiting on an appeal, their conviction is abated – that is, it is removed from their record as if it had never happened. The reason for this is because if there is an appeal in process, there is a chance that the conviction had a mistake in it somewhere. So by operating on the principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the state will abate the conviction rather than risk letting an innocent person remain convicted.
However, the appeal states that the abatement actually rewards Hernandez and his estate for the deliberate act of suicide, and it “encourages other criminal defendants to elect suicide as a means of avoiding criminal responsibility and potentially conferring financial and other benefits on third parties.”
Legal Issues With Abatement
The main issue that prosecutors and families of the victims in situations like these is that civil lawsuits usually rely on a criminal conviction as a basis of fact. Because the conviction no longer stands, litigants are unable to use that to point to prove that they are entitled to damages. In this case, Odin Lloyd’s mother, Ursula Ward, has filed a civil lawsuit against Hernandez’s estate in the form of a wrongful death suit.
Even though Hernandez’s estate was valued at $0 at the time of his death, there are still questions about whether or not his estate has money owed to it because the conviction was abated. His former team, the New England Patriots, could still owe his estate significant money. This would come from his signing bonus and portions of his salary that would still be owed to him. Additionally, there were reports that Hernandez could have had a life insurance policy that would pay out to his estate.
Hernandez will also have a pension. However, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act works to prevent civil lawsuits from taking that money.
Still, whether Hernandez is guilty for the record or not doesn’t matter to some. Urusla Ward said that to her, Hernandez is guilty and he will always be guilty.
[Featured Image by Stephan Savoia/AP Images]