As news of Aaron Hernandez's death this morning reverberated across Massachusetts, it inevitably generated a simple question: why now? A jury had just acquitted him of murder charges related to the shooting death of two men in the South End. What's more, he'd assembled a top-notch legal team, led by Jose Baez of Florida and Harvard Law professor Ronald Sullivan, that could potentially assist in challenging his 2015 homicide conviction for the death of Odin Lloyd. After the stress of the recent trial and the euphoria of his acquittal, did the bleakness of life back at the Souza-Baranowski maximum-security prison propel Hernandez in deep despair? To the extent an answer exists, if it does, it presumably lies in the realm of psychology more than law.
While we will never know what was in his head, we do have an inkling about what might happen with his appeal. Hernandez had an automatic right to appeal his murder conviction to the highest court in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court. A well-regarded team of appellate attorneys at Thompson & Thompson was in the process of representing him in that appeal. Yet, as in most jurisdictions, case law from the SJC recognizes the concept of "abatement by death," the notion that if a defendant dies while appealing a conviction, the general practice is to vacate the judgment and dismiss the indictment. It appears as if the prosecution or a member of a victim's family may contest this result by putting forth a "sufficiently substantial" personal interest as to why it's important to proceed with the appeal. The SJC has also indicated there is little reason to vary from this practice unless novel or unique issues surface in the case.
The abatement-by-death concept has various rationales. The Arizona Supreme Court did a nice job of summarizing them in a 1979 opinion: "The rationale for death abating the criminal conviction is based on the fact that the interests of the state in protection of society have been satisfied, the imposition of punishment is impossible, and collection of fines or forfeiture result in punishing innocent third parties. The death of the defendant renders enforcement of the judgment impossible." Do these rationales apply with respect to Aaron Hernandez? Seemingly so -- though I wonder whether the family members of Odin Lloyd feel otherwise.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect the correct year Hernandez was convicted in the death of Odin Lloyd.