If ever anyone knew how potent a jury’s power to alter a life’s course, it was Aaron Hernandez. He killed himself days after being acquitted of a double murder in Boston. But he had little cause to celebrate the victory. He was sentenced to life behind bars for another murder, the result of another jury’s convicting him.
I suspect the contrast was more than he could bear.
Professional athletes live on life’s high wire. They know that reputations are made and lost in an instant. Snag a game-winning pass in overtime in a championship game, and you are a hero, forever. Muff the play, and glory is lost.
Yet athletes know there is always tomorrow, the next play, the next competition, the next season. Amid hopelessness hope forever remains.
But life is no game, at least not in the criminal justice system.
Sure, trial has a sporting aspect to it.
Lawyers prepare for their contests with the intensity of athletes There is the drama of trial, where a judge, playing the role of referee or umpire, makes sure the rules are followed. And then there is the final inning, the expiration of the clock, the finish line – pick your metaphor. Trials, like games, end. And there are no ties at trial. One side wins, the other loses.
Only at trial, the athletes are the lawyers.
Athletes and lawyers play for honor, glory and wealth. But lawyers play with the lives of others. Aaron Hernandez, a former tight end and superstar for the New England Patriots, wasn’t a competitor in his trials. He was the trophy over which others fought. He was a plaything.
I suspect the role infuriated and terrified him.
I met with Hernandez after his conviction for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd.
Our meeting took place in a holding cell the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts. I had difficulty getting in to see him, and was turned away the first day I appeared. Jailers would not permit visitors, even lawyers, to dress in blue jeans. This particular pigeon coop had an unusual dress code.
He had just been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was awaiting trial for the 2012 shootings of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado. I can’t discuss what we talked about – the attorney-client privilege survives the death of the client. But I can say I was impressed by the fighting spirit within the man. He was Achilles raging at the world. I liked him; I would have liked to have spent more time with him.
Hernandez is from central Connecticut, my home state. Plenty of people know him here, and share stories about the local boy made good, then turned bad, so horribly bad. A life wasted, people say. Today they will mourn a life gone, vanished. Suicide is always an act of betrayal.
When I learned Jose Baez had agreed to try the double homicide, my heart sank. I was sure there’d be a conviction. I wasn’t persuaded that Baez’s victory in the Casey Anthony trial was anything other than a fluke. Blaming her father for the death of her child and then not supporting that claim with evidence cost Baez my respect.
Or was it mere professional jealousy on my part? I am capable, after all, of every form of pettiness.
When Baez won the Hernandez case, I dropped my pride and sat, simply, in something approaching awe over what Baez had accomplished. He has my respect and admiration now. He walks the walk.
I can’t help wondering whether in his final moments Hernandez was overcome with regret. What if he had won that first trial? What if better lawyers, a different jury, had delivered a not guilty verdict in that case? It would have taken only two words to change his life’s course.
I followed the Odin Lloyd trial closely, and a not guilty verdict would not have surprised me. I was surprised by the verdict last week.
This suicide is a punch to the gut. Achilles stormed to the shore not to rage against Agamemnon, but to end his own life. That’s not how the story is supposed to end.
But a sense of honor is a fickle master. Suicide is one way of rejecting the cards dealt in the game of life.
I’ve practiced law for a long time now, and I am no stranger to suicides. Survivors feel regret. What about the call not returned, the letter unsent, the prison visit unmade?
The haters will take glee in Hernandez’s suicide. A life for a life, they will say. Already, sour wits give thanks for this suicide. Think of the savings to society, I saw one Twitter user exclaim.
All I can think of is the waste.
Aaron Hernandez once had it all – youth, fame and fortune. Then he fell into a prison cell. Something called justice told him he’d die in a concrete box, confined until he passed his last breath. I can understand this suicide, even as I struggle to accept it.
Maybe Hernandez is a murderer. At least one jury thought he was; another had reasonable doubts.
But I don’t doubt for a moment that savagery killed Aaron Hernandez. Life without possibility of parole is an unbearable weight; our criminal justice system passes out lengthy sentences far too often.
So the savages won the battle for Aaron Hernandez’s soul this week. The savages wore jailer’s uniforms. Hernandez left the field on a stretcher, never to return. I am sorry he is gone.