Massachusetts jurors found Aaron Hernandez, 25, guilty of murder Wednesday. The former New England Patriots tight end was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 2013 death of Odin Lloyd.
The jury’s verdict was both unsurprising and stunning at the same time.
“I tried as a prosecutor and defense attorney dozens of murder cases, and one of the things you learn early on is you’re just never sure what’s going on in jurors’ minds,” CBS legal analyst Jack Ford said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “A lot of times, people try to handicap a case watching jurors and saying, ‘I think this is what they’re going to do.’ This is one of those cases where, quite candidly, I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if they said not guilty – not because we’re saying he’s innocent, but because we’re saying we’re just not sure about this. But I also would not have been surprised if they came back as they did and said guilty.
“People talk about this being a circumstantial-evidence case, like somehow that means you can’t convict somebody,” Ford continued. “The reality is, (in) the in the court of law, jurors are told that circumstantial evidence can be as imposing and compelling as direct evidence. Nowadays, law says that can be enough to convict you.”
On Wednesday, it was.
Is is unknown why Hernandez would have killed Lloyd, a 27-year-old landscaper who was dating the sister of Hernandez’ fiancee. But as Ford explained, a motive is not necessary for a conviction.
“What’s interesting is people are surprised by this,” Ford said. “You don’t need to prove a motive as a prosecutor in a murder case. You think you do. Practically speaking, do jurors want to know the answer to the question why? Of course they do. (It’s) just human nature. You want to get an answer. But jurors are told you don’t have to have a motive proven for you beyond a reasonable doubt for you to convict somebody of murder. You can say, ‘I don’t know why they did it, but I’m confident by the evidence that they did.’
“Would you like to have a motive? Yes, the motive here is kind of odd. It was a little bit strange and strained. The defense was saying, ‘Why would somebody kill somebody because of a disagreement and a family-dating relationship?’ But apparently this jury (felt a conviction was warranted). And they spent a lot of time (deliberating). Jurors learned a lesson from the first O.J. Simpson trial. In high-profile cases, you need to invest some time to make people comfortable with your decision. They spent 35 hours (deliberating) on this, so clearly they were satisfied.
“Circumstantial evidence, kind of a shaky motive – but enough for them to say guilty.”
Because of the joint-venture law in Massachusetts, some wonder if it was a mistake for Hernandez’s attorneys to admit Hernandez was at the scene of the crime when Lloyd was murdered.
“I’m sure they’re going to look back on it and say, ‘Should we have conceded things?’” Ford said. “Sometimes as a defense lawyer, you say, ‘In order to preserve some integrity, you have to concede the obvious; otherwise jurors are not going to believe me when I talk to them.’”
Under joint-venture law, you do not necessarily have to pull the trigger to be found guilty of murder. Rather, if you were the mastermind or orchestrator of a murder, you can be just as guilty as the person who actually carried out the deed.
“The law says you can be equally responsible under the law even if you didn’t pull the trigger but if it wouldn’t have happened except for you; you made it happen,” Ford summarized. “That was the theory essentially, because the prosecution couldn’t prove who pulled the trigger. They basically said, ‘We’re going to prove to you who was there, that they were all part of it and that Aaron Hernandez was the orchestrator of this – and that’s enough under Massachusetts law for you to convict them.’ And the jurors agreed.”