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Hernandez Indictment Nothing But A Formality

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Former Patriot Aaron Hernandez at Attleboro District Court was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in the slaying of Odin Lloyd. Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.
Former Patriot Aaron Hernandez at Attleboro District Court was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in the slaying of Odin Lloyd. Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

The Aaron Hernandez saga made headlines again earlier this week when a federal grand jury indicted him for murder. While the circumstantial evidence surrounding Hernandez continues to emerge, the prosecution is still in search of a murder weapon – something the defense will most certainly exploit. But while a person can be convicted without the presence of a murder weapon, it symbolizes a gaping hole in the prosecution’s case. If guilt cannot be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” one must acquit.

Hernandez’s indictment was nothing more than a formality. In Massachusetts, serious felony charges, such as murder, are handled in Superior Court, where cases must go through the grand jury process. The process essentially works like this: a group of no more than 23 people listen to evidence presented by a prosecutor. The grand jury has subpoena power to gather evidence and practically assists the prosecution in their investigation. Prosecutors are not required to actually prove anything. Rather, their goal is to establish probable cause – otherwise known as reasonable cause to believe that the person charged committed the crime. It is crucial to point out that in Massachusetts, as in many other states, judges, defendants and attorneys for the defendant, are not present for grand jury proceedings and they are closed to the public.

In light of the fact that this is probably the most high-profile murder case involving a professional athlete since O.J. Simpson's, any prosecutor with a pulse could get an indictment here. In this proceeding, Hernandez provided no exculpatory evidence, nor professed his innocence. It’s simply not part of the process. Indictments like this one are expected, but serve to feed the public’s harsh opinions on Hernandez and his presumption of innocence.

Hernandez’s indictment is just the beginning of what will certainly be a media frenzy leading up to his trial. As expected, Hernandez’s defense attorney, Michael Fee, was stoic in proclaiming his client’s innocence, setting the stage for a courtroom spectacle typically reserved for television dramas.

Stay tuned.

Scott Daniels is a practicing attorney in New York City.